CNA Joins NUHW In Biggest Healthcare Strike Ever
By Cal Winslow
BeyondChron September 26, 2011
California healthcare workers have now taken their
fight to another level - on Thursday, September 22,
some 21,000 struck the huge Kaiser Permanente chain, 24
major medical centers - while more struck Sutter,
Kaiser's healthcare partner in crime, also a giant in
the California hospital business. It was the biggest
single strike in healthcare history!
It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of these
strikes. In the face of a deafening chorus preaching
austerity, of the near universal demand - from
corporations to politicians - for concessions, these
workers have said no; no they will not give back what
they have fought for years to win, and they are not
willing to give up what other workers should have. And
certainly not give up to these grotesquely wealthy
hospital chains and their millionaire managers.
Let's get right to the point. Kaiser has made $5.7
billion since 2009; $1.6 billion since the beginning of
the year. Kaiser CEO George Halvorson was paid more
than $8 million in total compensation in 2009 alone.
Sutter sits on $11.6 billion in assets. It has recorded
S3.7 billion in profits since 2005. It has twenty top
executives who receive more than $1 million each.
Yet, of course, Kaiser is trying to force deep cuts in
workers' healthcare and retirement benefits. Sutter
RN's are protesting no less than 200 sweeping company
At the same time, these workers are resisting cuts in
staffing, and the implicit demand that they abandon
their role as patients' advocates. Hundreds on the
picket lines were therapists and psychiatric social
workers - increasingly appalled by Kaiser's
indifference to some of the neediest of care. "There
are cuts," the nurses' banners read, "that don't heal."
Thursday's strikes are a link in a chain of resistance
that began in May when 2500 members of the National
Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) struck Kaiser in
Southern California; 1100 NUHW nurses and nearly 1000
professionals (social workers, therapists, dieticians,
other medical technicians, etc.) picketed Kaiser's Los
Angeles Medical Center in Hollywood in a powerful
display of solidarity.
That strike, one day in duration, came as NUHW members
fight to win a decent contract at Kaiser - challenging
the healthcare giant's draconian demands. Kaiser
refused to budge; NUHW threatened escalating strikes,
planning these for September, certainly a courageous
stand for a new union with fewer than 10,000 members.
But this time the game changed. In August the
California Nurses Association (CNA), an affiliate of
the National Nurses Union (NNU) announced that its
Kaiser nurses, 17,000 strong, would strike in sympathy
- in solidarity with their co-workers, the members of
the NUHW. Kaiser's operating engineers followed suit.
And CNA announced it would strike Sutter.
They did. They joined NUHW in Thursday's s magnificent
display of solidarity, of workers unity, and of action.
It was "illegal", threatened management. It was greedy
reported the press: "How can you ask for more, when
everyone else is getting less?"
What is happening here? There are levels to the answer.
First, there is the deep consciousness that caregivers
can have, their pride in their vocations, their
responsibilities to their patients, their understanding
that they're all in it together - so it is no secret
that thousands of Kaiser RN's have sympathized with the
NUHW and their struggle to maintain and build a real
union for Kaiser's service and technical workers.
Then there is the tradition of militant unionism in
California healthcare workers - a tradition that goes
back decades, both for CNA members and members of the
NUHW and the union from which they've come, Service
Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers
(SEIU-UHW). Also a highly progressive political
tradition- the belief that an injury to one is an
injury to all, long-term opposition to war and equally
long-term support for universal healthcare. It is no
accident that these unions have fought for and won the
best standards in their industry in the country.
This summer, the turning point came; the handwriting
was on the wall. The concessions Kaiser was demanding
from NUHW members were not to be isolated givebacks.
The pharmaceutical workers, members of an independent
union, had already conceded them. Kaiser was playing
hard-ball. More, importantly, it was clear, that the
SEIU-UHW - now run by carpet bagging staff parachuted
in from the union's headquarters in Washington, DC, had
secretly agreed to these as well.
Kaiser's RN's had held firm in their last negotiations,
maintaining standards achieved in years of struggle.
But if NUHW was defeated, they would face Kaiser alone
in the next round. Not only that, they would face a
Kaiser with its single biggest union, SEIU-UHW in its
pocket. So the nurses weighed in.
I spent the Thursday at Oakland's Kaiser Medical
Center. The strike began at 7 am; numbers grew
throughout the morning, until there were hundreds there
for the rally at noon - the great majority were nurses,
but NUHW professionals were out in full force. The mood
was militant, but jubilant; it was more a festival of
solidarity - and defiance. There were the chants, but
singing, and dancing, as well. I took pictures, dozens
of them; nothing but happy faces. "Save one life," a
poster read, "You're a hero. Save one hundred, you're a
CNA staffer Jon Sternberg convened a noon rally. AFL-
CIO President Richard Trumka was in town, but he
restricted his presence to remarks at nearby Alta Bates
Summit, Sutter's Oakland center. We were lucky. We got
Country Joe McDonald instead, introduced as "pure
Berkeley". He sang "This Land" and "For What It's
Worth." Clem Papazian, a psychiatric social worker and
Peter Tappeiner spoke for NUHW - Papazian on Kaiser's
crisis in mental health services: "We have a chronic
problem in psychotherapy resources, we don't have
enough staff. Some people wait five, six weeks for a
return visit." Tappeiner on the significance of the
Then Katie Rhomer and Kathie Donahue, Kaiser RN's,
explained the "sympathy" strike in a brief but powerful
clinic on solidarity. Rhomer: "We're here because we
care; we care because that's our job. We care about our
co-workers." Donahue: "There was one thing Kaiser
didn't count on when they took on NUHW," she told the
strikers. "They didn't count on us. They didn't
remember that when you take on one of us, you take on
all of us." Roar of approval. Donahue: "Back Off,
The strike was state wide, also a first in history,
with big turnouts in Sacramento, Santa Clara, Fresno,
Modesto, Santa Rosa. There were more than a thousand
out at the Los Angeles Medical Center in Hollywood,
where nurses are represented by NUHW. Their strike was
three days. In Oakland, strikers marched from Kaiser to
Sutter's nearby Alta Bates. There, CNA Co-President
DeAnn McEwen told the combined rally: "When nurses are
on the outside, there's something wrong on the inside."
She called Sutter's demands "drastic, unwarranted and
unconscionable. They're harming patients and we're
standing in the gap." "Nurses will never be silenced in
standing up for our patients and our communities, or
our members and our families," said Oakland Children's
Hospital RN Martha Kuhl.
Frederick Douglas, the famed abolitionist, is perhaps
best known for saying, "Without struggle, there is no
progress." Surely, this is true for our labor movement
today. There are stirrings to be sure but largely it
remains inert. Sometimes worse. It needs transforming.
It needs simultaneously a backbone transplant and a
refocusing on the corporate enemy. There is a tragic
chapter to this story that needs telling and repeating
no matter how unpleasant it may be. The NUHW came into
existence in the aftermath of SEIU's trusteeship of its
150,000 California local, UHW. In the course of
imposing this trusteeship - seizing assets, firing
officers, intimidation, threats, loyalty oaths - SEIU
wrecked UHW. It remains only as a shell of its former
Had it not done this - defying warnings, even pleading
from all sides - there would be another 40,000 Kaiser
workers (service and technical workers) in this fight.
But there was no SEIU to be seen on Thursday - or let's
say there were some reports of purple shirts: at
Redwood City an SEIU staff member stood with managers
across the road from the pickets, observing the scene
from a distance. The same at Richmond.
SEIU not only opposed the strike but colluded with
Kaiser management to break it. Kaiser workers were told
by SEIU staff that they were prohibited from joining
the strike; they might be terminated if they did. SEIU
told members they would not be defended if they were
disciplined. They circulated management warnings. Again
at Redwood City, management used a mandatory monthly
department meeting as a platform for an SEIU
representative - inviting him to warn workers that they
would face discipline, indeed that the whole unit's
scheduled pay increases might be jeopardized.
Nevertheless, Kaiser workers turned up Thursday wearing
NUHW red (CNA's color is also red). Management said
"red" was not allowed. At Santa Clara managers were
seen clothed in SEIU Purple! Nevertheless, statewide,
as many as several thousand SEIU members may have
joined the strike; at Walnut Creek reports were that
more than 100 walked.
We would be better off without SEIU and its corporate
style, its thousands of staff and deep pockets. But
wishing won't make any of this go away. Thursday's
great achievement - this great strike, this strike that
sent everyone home smiling, empowered, united - was
largely the result of the determination of the NUHW
members and their willingness to fight on, to struggle,
despite the odds. Against SEIU. Against the hospital
corporations. And I think it is clear that the Kaiser
RN's recognized this and to their great credit
recognized they were all in it together. And so the
fight in California is once again focused on the
bosses. Good. And we can only hope that the unity
achieved can be maintained, that the struggle forced
upon these workers will produce a lasting solidarity.
SEIU, abandoned last year by its celebrity leader, Andy
Stern, has as yet shown not the slightest sign of
changing its ways. It remains a mystery why so many
continue to regard it as somehow progressive, even as a
union. Whatever. California's labor civil wars are far
from finished. The Kaiser workers have no choice but to
defeat this organization as it is now constituted,
however difficult this may be. But this is not the
first time, not by any means, that workers have had to
fight their way through a rotten imitation of a union
to clear a path for progress. It will not be the last.
Yes, there have been stirrings this year, most
powerfully among Egypt's workers. In this country there
have been sparks in Madison and at Verizon. But real
progress, let alone victory will only come, as Douglass
insisted, by advancing the struggle: "power concedes
nothing without demand, it never has, it never will."
California's healthcare workers have taken another step
forward. They deserve our support. The struggle
Cal Winslow has written extensively on the subject of
the SEIU and NUHW. He is the author of Labor's Civil
War in California, PM Press and an editor of Rebel Rank
and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during
the Long Seventies (Verso, 2010). He is a Fellow at UC
Berkeley, Director of the Mendocino Institute and
associated with the Bay Area collective, Retort. He can
be reached at [log in to unmask]
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