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California Hospital Workers Strike, Fracturing Pandemic’s Uneasy Labor Peace

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Despite nationwide shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and working conditions that have often been life-threatening, there have not been major strikes of hospital workers in America since the coronavirus pandemic struck. Until now.

More than 700 employees of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, a regional trauma center in California’s Sonoma County, held a five-day strike that concluded on Friday. Foremost among the motivating issues were cuts in health care and paid sick leave that the hospital, owned by Providence St. Joseph Health, was pushing on employees during a contentious contract bargaining campaign. The employees are members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

“The biggest reason is because we’ve been out of contract for over a year, and the hospital is trying to force us into a pretty bad contract,” said Steven Batson, an anesthesia tech and 10-year veteran of the hospital, speaking from the picket line last week, where he was joined by hundreds of his coworkers. The company wants to significantly increase health care premiums, Batson said, and to take paid time off away from senior workers and shift it to newer workers as a recruitment tool. Batson, a shop steward, said the contentious bargaining over this contract is “absolutely” the worst he has experienced in his ten years.

Chuck Desepte, an X-ray technician who has been at Santa Rosa for 13 years, agreed. “It’s the takeaways that I’m not accepting,” he said. “They can afford this. We don’t want to go backwards. We’ve been here for this community over and over again.”

In May, the New York Times reported that Providence Health, which received a bailout of more than $500 million from the federal government in the CARES Act, has a $12 billion cash pile and sizable investments in hedge funds and venture capital. “Last year, Providence’s portfolio of investments generated about $1.3 billion in profits, far exceeding the profits from its hospital operations,” the Times wrote.

Though the strike was not directly caused by the fallout of the coronavirus, the pandemic is playing an unavoidable role. Batson said that although the union held a strike authorization vote in February that passed overwhelmingly, it held off on taking action once the pandemic hit. He said that the hospital was slow to require universal masking, and that to this day, housekeeping staff and outpatient lab technicians who do coronavirus testing are not given adequate PPE, like N95 masks. “The hospital has definitely used this pandemic as a weapon against us,” he said, including by trying to portray the workers as irresponsible for going on strike.

In a statement on the first day of the strike, the hospital wrote that “we are deeply disappointed that NUHW has decided to hold a five-day strike given that the number of COVID-19 cases is on the rise in Sonoma County and the potential for a significant increase in hospitalizations remains.” The company also hastened to paint employees as selfishly exploiting current events. “The union has made clear in communications to our caregivers that this is not a strike about personal protective equipment (PPE) or workplace safety. Instead, this is an ordinary dispute over the terms of our labor contract,” the hospital wrote. “It is unfortunate and unfounded that the union is using COVID-19 as a platform for its negotiating tactics. We never deny a caregiver PPE.”

The company itself is playing hardball. It tried to dissuade the strike with preemptive economic threats, posting ominous fliers warning that, “If NUHW submits a strike notice, our current wage offer of an annual 3% increase will be lowered to 2%, to account for the significant expense of a disruptive strike, and the current offer will be pulled off the table.” (Time will tell whether that threat stands as negotiations continue.) As soon as the strike was called, the company stopped deducting union dues from workers’ paychecks, a move that serves to annoy and hassle the union, making it much more time-intensive to collect dues. Contracted replacement workers from an outside agency were brought in for the five-day duration of the strike.

Though every labor action is unique, the fact that NUHW was willing to go through with the strike in the face of the inevitable attacks about responsibility during the pandemic could signal that the fragile labor peace that has mostly reigned in the healthcare sector—an industry afflicted with more than its share of dissatisfied and endangered union workers—may be buckling. Unions that have been cautious about going on strike over contract issues during this crisis will sooner or later be forced to decide whether they will allow employers (who may have multi-billion-dollar investment portfolios) to make them swallow concessions they would not have otherwise accepted. The employees at Santa Rosa, who worked through major wildfires in their area in 2017 and 2019 before facing the Covid outbreak this year, will soon find out if their bold action pays off.

It was not an easy decision. “We’re health care workers,” said Desepte. “We want to take care of people.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected]


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How Budget Cuts and Privatization Endanger Workers in Psychiatric Hospitals

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kari-lydersenStephanie Moulton reportedly loved her job as a social worker serving mentally disturbed people living in group homes under the care of the state—many of them having ended up there as a result of criminal charges.

Moulton was brutally killed by one of the schizophrenic men in her care, Deshawn James Chappell, while the 100-pound woman was, as usual, working alone at the group home. Other residents had left for programs and she was taking Chappell to an appointment when he stabbed her to death, dumped her body and fled to his grandmother’s house. His distraught mother told The New York Times she had been telling officials at two different homes for some time that her son was off his medication and becoming increasingly erratic and violent. Working alone, Moulton was not physically equipped for the challenge.

Meanwhile, workers at juvenile detention centers in a number of states are complaining of being regularly attacked by their young charges, and discouraged from reporting the incidents by higher-ups, as reported by the Associated Press last week.

Both situations are examples of how government budget cuts and privatization of social services over the years—becoming even more critical in current times—put both government workers and people under the government’s care at serious risk.

The New York Times story relates Moulton’s murder to the larger trends of de-institutionalization of the mentally ill and also the privatization of group homes that pick up much of the slack for greatly decreased numbers of beds for the mentally ill in medical facilities.

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Working conditions in state-run mental institutions have become more dangerous because of state budget cuts and privatization, say workers.

De-institutionalization, on the one hand, was seen as a just way to grant more freedom and autonomy to people with mental issues who did not necessarily need to live in institutional, often repressive settings. But it was also a major way for state and federal government agencies to cut costs, and many said the civil rights aspect was largely cover for cost-cutting that leaves legitimate needs for institutional settings unmet.

Chappell‘s mother said it was not until he faced criminal charges that her son was able to get into government care, even at one of the relatively open group homes where he was allowed to go off his medication and ultimately killed Moulton.

Even after de-institutionalization, group homes have increasingly been privatized, meaning less oversight of their staffing levels or other practices and more incentive for the companies to cut corners to make a profit. Moulton was transferred to the home where she was killed after she was threatened by a hostile resident at another home.

As employees of individual private companies, workers at these facilities would likely find it very difficult to unionize; whereas if the government were running the group homes, workers would at least likely be represented by a relatively powerful public employees union.

Workers at juvenile detention facilities are largely represented by unions, which are speaking out about the physical risks faced by staffers. The AP quotes Jason Prevatt, who suffered a concussion, broken nose and black eyes when attacked by youth at a Massachusetts facility last year:

When I come through the door, I just feel like I have no rights … It’s very unsafe and it’s basically enter at your own risk.

Juvenile detention workers said they are understaffed and are strongly discouraged from reporting or especially pressing charges regarding assaults by youth detainees. One administration official was quoted saying prosecuting youth would be contrary to the idea of working for their rehabilitation.

But workers note that allowing detainees to act up with few consequences makes things unsafe for staff and other detainees. The AP reported:

In Maryland, a 13-year-old boy at a juvenile detention center was charged last year in the death of a 65-year-old teacher, who was beaten, sexually assaulted and choked. An investigation found that the slaying was the result of “multiple systemic security failures,” including outdated buildings and a shortage of security cameras and radios for staff.

In Massachusetts, there were 182 assaults on staff by youths during the 9-month period ending in February, according to figures provided by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93, which represents more than 45,000 employees in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Of course, reports of abuses and neglect by staff at group homes and juvenile detention facilities nationwide are also common. For example, in Chicago several years ago, youth at a temporary detention facility alleged they were forced to eat rotten food and go without clean underwear for weeks.

The root causes of abuses and harm suffered by both residents and staff in such government-run facilities are likely the same—slashed budgets, lack of oversight, privatization and general lack of respect for both people in government detention or care, and those who work with them.

This blog originally appeared in These Working Times on June 23, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at [email protected]


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