The November 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

AFSC Honors War Resisters

David Harris: A Stirring Call to Conscience

Leonard McNeil: Resisting 'Rich Man's Wars'

Karen Meredith: A Mother's Plea for Peace

Not One More Death, Not One More Dollar

Massive Police Sweeps in Contra Costa County

Housing First for Poor Families

Landlords Sue to End Just Cause

Struggle to Save the Free Box

YEAH! Shelters Homeless Youth

Gentrification in Berkeley

New Home for East Bay Law Center for Poor

Wal-Mart Pushes Philanthrophy

Sutter Health's War Against Health Workers

Growing Gulf Between Rich and Poor

Inequality in America

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Forgiveness


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October 2005

September 2005

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May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

 

 

 


 

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Sutter Wages a Class War Against Health Workers

by Carol Harvey

There they were, the usual suspects -- stereotypes from The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's novel about subhuman working conditions in the meatpacking industry. Replacing Big Meatpacking in the blood-red waters were the new circling sharks: Big Predatory Healthcare.

Instead of cattle entrails, human fluids, blood, and tissue were splattered on inadequately cleaned hospital walls and floors. Sunset Scavengers refused to pick up contaminated needles discarded in the trash outside.

At two meetings of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors' Government Audit and Oversight Committee held on October 17 and 24, 2005, union and management speakers addressed the ongoing strike at California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) before President Aaron Peskin, and Supervisors Chris Daly and Sean Elsbernd. CPMC is a Sutter Health affiliate.

A queue of nurses told how displacement of low-wage employees by squadrons of even lower-wage "replacement workers" savaged patient care at CPMC's three sites, pitting underpaid workers against poorer replacements.

CPMC Communications Director Cynthia Chiarappa insisted the strike had "no impact on our ability to provide high-quality health care." Strikers hissed and booed.

Vickie Bermudez, regulatory policy specialist for the California Nurses' Association, testified that "the absence of assistive personnel, housekeeping, dietary, laundry, and central processing service," and an "inadequate screening, orientation, and competency validation of the replacement staff" have compromised patient care.

One R.N. refused to work with replacement nursing assistants who couldn't report abnormal vital signs. Sloppy "cleaning" is done by untrained people who don't understand the serious blood and body fluid hazards in their scab jobs. Nurses can't get linen or scrubs. Trashcans overflow. Garbage blocks hallways. Bathrooms have empty soap dispensers and no paper towels, essential for infection control. Patients wait hours for pain meds. Tissue and blood products from surgeries and labor and delivery areas are left in basins for the next pregnant mother to discover.

Diane Wayna, confessed through tears, "These people out there on the line are worth their weight in gold. I didn't realize how good a job they did."

A tale of corporate corruption

According to SEIU pickets and organizers, this is a corporate corruption story with rich pitted against poor, race and class war-style.

Earnest John Borsos, SEIU administrative vice president, stood at the podium in the Board of Supervisors chambers battling "the evil corporation" on behalf of exploited workers; while sympathetic nurses poured out compassion toward the sick and underpaid; and inconvenienced NIMBY Pacific Heights neighbors barked complaints about picketers' cacophony during evening meals.

High-level hospital managers who hired African American "replacement workers" fresh from Gilmore, Oakland, Bayview Hunters Point, and Hurricane Katrina, appeared alongside striking employees, largely workers of color. The muted bong of the two-minute bell punctuated each impassioned speech.

Those taking part in the 46-day, "open-ended" strike by the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) Local 250 are 800 underpaid and overworked hospital caregivers, LVNs, CNAs, food service workers, aides, technicians, housekeepers, custodians and clerks. The grievance is not primarily about pay, but about workers having a voice. According to Ambi Bruce, Davies UHW organizer, Sutter Health gave the workers "generous wage offers. They've been rejected."

Strike history

On December 1, 2004, workers conducted a one-day strike protesting Sutter's bad-faith bargaining. The court ordered Sutter to recompense striking workers for unlawfully locking them out four additional days.

In a Board of Supervisors hearing, caregivers urged Sutter to settle the contract according to a set of uniform standards to which other hospitals agreed, including giving healthcare workers "a real voice" in increased staffing to lighten heavy workloads, a fast and fair election process, a Master Agreement, and funds for training and education through which, for example, certified nursing assistants could upgrade training to become registered nurses.

Negotiations deadlocked through the summer of 2005. On August 28, Federal Mediator David Weinberg, attempting to avert a walkout, proposed a settlement. Both sides agreed, then California Pacific Medical Center reneged, precipitating the September 13 strike.

Supervisor Peskin reviewed August 29 e-mails between the mediator, the union, and CPMC Director Martin Brotman. Sutter Health apparently pressured CPMC to alter the contract title and language. Borsos testified, "We rejected that. It changed the mediator's recommendation for settlement to something less."

Communications Director Cynthia Chiarappa said, "CPMC has requested that the union restart negotiations." Borsos said that CPMC's lawyer denied this.

"This dispute is not about wages and benefits," Chiarappa continued, "but union leaders' demands that would place a gag order on physicians, nurses, and hospital management from talking with employees about union representation... Placing a gag order on one side and not the other is not fair."

On the CPMC picket line, David Colburn, a rehab aide, said that management wants to conduct one-on-one meetings about unionism with non-union workers in a room with a boss who could potentially fire them. "No words have to be said," said Colburn. "It's intimidating simply to be in the room under those circumstances. That's the kind of thing we want to eliminate."

Peskin asked if Chiarappa had a copy of the mediator's "unfair" recommendation. "I do not have that with me today," she replied. Supervisor Daly reminded Chiarappa that management's legions of lawyers would have such documentation if, in fact, it existed.

Peskin said he had read the mediator's proposal, and "Mr. Brotman's piece in The Business Times where he (too) said this has nothing to do with wages and benefits or patient care (but) with the union's desire to organize and expand. Section 247... says that the employer... may contact employees who wish to organize. I don't see this gag order."

Cheers erupted after Peskin's rebuttal. Peskin then continued the hearing to Monday, October 24, urging a higher level CPMC official like Dr. Martin Brotman to "come down here and talk to us."

When Community Relations Manager Paula Lykens raised her voice in calling strikers noisy and unclean, Peskin gaveled her out of order. "It is precisely this kind of arrogance... that has this going on," he said. CPMC managers then filed out of the hearing.

A highly profitable nonprofit

Nonprofit Sutter Health, the largest chain in Northern California, made nearly half a billion dollars last year, far more than most for-profit hospitals. Ambi Bruce said, "CPMC is the most profitable Sutter. If this chain was paying its taxes to the San Francisco treasury, we wouldn't have fire stations closing or the police department in a three-year hiring freeze."

Bruce explained that Sutter pads its balance sheets in four ways:
1. It provides only token charity care to qualify for nonprofit status.
2. Sutter understaffs its hospitals.
3. It overprices health care, charging some patients 50-60 percent above area hospitals.
4. Utilizing a predatory approach to charity care, Sutter's for-profit collection agencies go to court to sue uninsured students and poor people for miniscule amounts. Combing through Stanislaus County public records, Bruce emerged with a foot-high stack showing Sutter sued for $50 or $100 medical bills, taking homes and cars.

Workers deprived of a voice

Bruce said Sutter's refusal to give workers a voice is classist, and described Sutter as philosophically opposed to unionism. Bruce said, "Kaiser or Catholic Healthcare West would have said, 'Forget it. Let's give it to them.' Sutter's response to our demand for staffing arbitration is, 'I don't want workers, (who, coincidentally, do the jobs every day) having a voice and telling me how I should staff this hospital.' "

Said Brenda Jensen, CNA, "I go to staff meetings, and my voice isn't heard: 'You're (just) one of the health care workers.' "

I asked Bruce if, in his experience, Sutter and CPMC executives appeared to be prejudiced toward people who make far less than they do. "Yes," he replied. "Van Johnson, Sutter CEO, just retired (to) be a missionary for the Church of Latter Day Saints. Before he left, (he) gave himself a 60 percent raise. He ended up at almost $2 million a year."

Said California site organizer Michael Bender, "Their spokesman saying patient care hasn't deteriorated probably hasn't been on a nursing unit for weeks or months. That (is not) coming from the people doing the care."

Keith Herbert, California site housekeeper said, "It's obvious that a corporation like Sutter and CPMC -- their feet don't touch the ground. They don't usually walk amongst the people."

Understaffing

Organizer Bruce said, "Staffing is definitely classist. They put the biggest burden on nursing assistants, LVNs, or housekeepers. They clean 15, 20 rooms. You are not going to do a good job with that many."

An employer unrestricted by a union has arbitrary power to replace CNAs and LVNS with "travelers," floater nurses that management shifts around at will. Permanent nurses are sent home early. Traveling is the healthcare industry's answer to outsourcing.

Brenda Jensen, a seven-year CNA at CPMC, told the supervisors that she cares for 18 people without breaks, getting vital signs, feeding patients, changing diapers, moving post-surgical cases to and from commodes and procedures. She has no time to remove patients' dentures at night.

Romero and Rudy, California campus housekeeping workers, want "safe staffing." They are required to do the work of two people, plus overtime. They feel the pressure to do still more. "If the room is dirty, if the restrooms are not clean, the patient and the family suffer."

SEIU-UHW is asking for a real training and education program for workers, up to the local $1,000 standard. Although housekeeping is a necessary job, Bruce emphasized, "We are saying somebody shouldn't be stuck there. If they want to upgrade their skills, even housekeeping skills, Sutter should invest in its workers like they invest in a building."

"Sutter's hiring practices are as racist as any profit-making business," said Bruce. "They don't hire these people for normal jobs. When the strike is over, they are fired."

Sutter used a union-buster, Gary W. Fanger, to hire "some Katrina victims in an opportunist manner, offering them desperately needed low-paying jobs." Bruce said they also find replacement workers by going "into poor communities, to projects," and dangling scab jobs before very poor people.

Scabs make $10 to $15 an hour, though not as much as regular CPMC workers. CNAs make $19 to $28. Scabs know they will neither be turned away nor suffer background checks.

Armed guards, executive paranoia

At CPMC, a burly, black-suited Rent-An-Enforcer told me he was from the Steele Foundation, analogous to Blackwater, a soldier-of-fortune company. "I just got back from Katrina," he said. "I'm like a Secret Service agent who guards the President." Such hired soldiers are used to protect political figures, athletes, celebrities, CEOs, business leaders.

While a few strikers huddled for warmth around a propane heater on the sidewalk, the Steele mercenary said he was protecting hospital executives from violence. The reason for "men standing around with the Secret Service thing in their ear like the FBI," Bruce explained, was intimidation. "They are telling us, 'This is a war.'"

Sutter Health/CPMC's overreaction seems based on fear of SEIU membership expansion. Said Colburn, "They are afraid of our union growing."

In January 2005, the Northern California healthcare workers union, SEIU Local 250, voted to merge with Los Angeles Local 399, expanding to 130,000, making it the largest union in California.

If the union wins at Sutter/CPMC, especially with the AFL-CIO split, other hospitals across the country may lose power over a huge swath of the workforce. The power balance between organized labor and corporations could be deeply effected by the CPMC strike.


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