In protest of what they claim to be steadily decreasing levels of staffing at University of California Medical Centers and Student Health Centers, UC registered nurses at five medical centers have voted to authorize bargainers to call a strike if necessary.
This decision is in the midst of extended contract negotiations, which began in July 2008 in concern of staffing, wages and benefits.
In connection with the decision, the California Nurses Association and the National Nurses Organizing Committee have filed a formal complaint of an unfair labor practice with the state government, charging UC hospitals with operating in direct violation of California state law that mandates nurse staffing levels be determined on a patient need basis.
“Basically, what happened is that our bargaining broke down in mid-November,” said Beth Kean, director of the UC division for the CNA.
Though the UC RNs have never actually carried through a strike, this is the second time since 2005 that UC RNs have voted to authorize a strike.
“Staffing became our main issue,” Kean said. “The nurses took a vote and overwhelming authorized the bargaining team to strike if necessary.“
Decreases in staffing, which began in July, have worsened in the over the course of bargaining, said Kean.
Steve Juarez, associate vice president and government relations director for UC, sent a letter disputing the charges on Dec. 17 in response to the vote authorizing a strike.
“We disagree that there is any issues regarding nurses staffing,” said Nicole Savickas, human resources communications coordinator at the UCOP. “We are repeatedly and consistently recognized for the high quality of our patient relations by numerous publications worldwide such as US News.“
The CNA/NNOC cite numerous instances of UC policy staffing nurses on the basis of UC profit goals rather than patient needs, a situation that they claim is critical because of the high acuity of UC patients.
“The state mandated ratios are never to be exceeded,” Kean said. “In the newborn intensive care unit, by state law a nurse is restricted to attending to two critically ill infants at a time. But at UCD, on a relatively regular basis one UCD nurse is charged with caring for four critically ill infants.“
The UC official responses to these and similar charges leveled by the CNA/NNOC can be viewed on ucnurses.org.
“We are abiding by state laws as far as staffing levels,” Savickas said. “Patient care is one of our primary concerns, and [CNA/NNOC] has not offered any substantial evidence to show how we have violated these regulations.“
Savickas said that the actions of CNA/NNOC in filing a formal complaint with the state are in direct violation of collective bargaining agreements between the UC and UC RNs, which state that issues with staffing should be addressed on a location-by-location basis as per previously established policy.
Negotiations are currently at a standstill, as the two parties have not met since Oct. 22. Should the nursing association proceed with a strike, nurses are required to give the UC Medical centers 10 days notice before leaving work, at which point the hospital will have to consider temporary staffing solutions or possible closure.
CHARLES HINRIKSSON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.