The two-day walkout was made in concert with 5,000 nurses at 13 Sutter Health hospitals throughout Northern California. The California Nurses Association (CNA) called the strike after negotiations with Sutter Health officials failed Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 12, said CNA Director of Communications Chuck Idelson.
"We came to the table, but Sutter doesn't engage in dialog," said Idelson. "They pretend to their nurses that they are trying to bargain, but what they are is indifferent. The issues are the same as last time, with the main one being patient care, and Sutter's arrogant refusal to address the nurses' concerns."
Nurses on the picket line said the strike was never about money, but about patient-nurse ratios and items such as scheduled breaks, and fair health and retirement benefits. The nurses recently received a 15-percent raise.
"Yes, that's a good thing (the raise), but we still have the other issues," said Edith Owens, a full-time nurse at Sutter. "We're going to do whatever it takes to get what we want."
In addition to the wage increase that had already been implemented, Sutter Delta's final offer included a $33,000 lifetime health coverage package for retirees and free medical coverage for nurses and their families. The average nurse's salary begins at around $40 per hour.
"It's true that some don't think the retirement plan is enough; they want it paid for for life," said Dori Stevens, chief nursing officer. "But we're different from other companies like Kaiser. I understand their issues and I respect their right to verbalize how they feel. We hope to be able to continue at some point with a dialog."
As for staffing, state law requires a 4-1 patient-nurse ratio for regular care, and 2-1 for intensive care. Sutter Health, said Stevens, remains in compliance. "It's business as usual for us," he said. "We've had a smooth transition and we are working as a team. Things are fine."
Not so, said surgical nurse Bonnie Morgan. "We are here about retirement, breaks, our pension and our patients," said Morgan. "I give excellent care to my patients, and we deserve to be treated fairly. Every Christmas there is a Scrooge, and this year it's Sutter."
But at least one nurse sees the situation differently. A full-time Sutter nurse who wished to remain anonymous, whom we'll call Sue, refused to go on strike. Sue said her allegiance lies with her patients and her employer and "not some cult that is trying to tell me what to do.
"If they (the nurses) are saying that their patients are suffering, then that doesn't say much for their nursing skills," Sue said. "I'm a leader, not a follower. I take care of my patients; that what drives me. I don't believe in the union. This isn't the l920s."
Stevens said that as of Thursday, Dec. 13, there had been no reduction in scheduled surgeries and that the hospital had contracted to bring in 73 replacement nurses during the strike. The strike was scheduled to run from 7 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 13 to 7 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 15. Sutter has hired replacement nurses for a four-day schedule, meaning nurses will be allowed back to work Monday morning.
Despite the walkout, and the possibility of another should a contract agreement not be reached, Stevens said she remains hopeful. "This has been a lot of work emotionally and physically, but I know that this isn't what anyone wants," said Stevens. "We're available anytime to talk; we are always willing."