Noah Rollins hasn’t taken a sick day from work in ten years, but on Wednesday, he left his post as a cook in the dietary department at Alta Bates Hospital to stand with dozens of chanting protesters outside. Carrying a sign reading, “No subcontracting!” he simply said, “I want job security and a better pension plan.”
“People who did the same work as me lost their jobs when their work was sub-contracted out. Six months later, they were re-hired but lost 20 years of seniority,” said Rollins.
Sheryn Wiseman, a mental health worker for adolescents at Alta Bates, said that she is often afraid of untrained or inadequate staff trying to handle patients overcome by “commanding hallucinations.”
“We’re so highly acute on our floors, we need adequate, experienced staffing for combative patients. We’ve often had to do without staff rather than call in more. I always check to see who else is on the floor when management asks me to take an overtime shift. It would be nice to have this addressed in our contracts.”
Job security and participation in staff hiring are only two demands on a long list for which an estimated 3,500 health workers are striking.
But Alta Bates management tells a different story. Spokesperson Carolyn Kemp argues that union leadership is pushing its own agenda “that has little to do with patient care.”
“(Workers) want lifetime jobs, and no one gets that,” she said.
Patients are paying for the strike, Kemp said. The strikers have disturbed patients trying to rest, but they have not disrupted any hospital’s operations.
The two-day strikes at eight Bay Area hospitals came after negotiations between Service Employees International Union Local 250 and Alta Bates-Summit management broke down. According to Alan Dunbar, field representative for Local 250, negotiations on July 31 and Aug.1 lasted into the early morning hours, with no progress made.
“Yesterday, I sat alone in a meeting room for eight and a half hours, waiting for a proposal from the management team,” he said. Since then, negotiations have been placed in the hands of federal mediators.
It is the second strike in the last month by the licensed vocational nurses, psychiatric technicians, nursing assistants, and dietary and mental health workers represented by SEIU Local 250. Picketers have staked out both Alta Bates’ main campus on Ashby Avenue and its psychiatric ward on Haste Street.
Kemp places blame for the stalemate squarely on Local 250. “We have met with them over 20 times. We’ve settled with three other major unions in our hospitals.”
While the first strike forced the cancellation of elective surgeries, largely due to a number of registered nurses joining the picketers, provisions were made to insure that no such disruptions would take place this time, Kemp said.
“Our first concern is for our patients, so we made sure that 93 to 95 percent of our nurses are in the hospitals now. They no longer support the strike. We also brought in replacement staff where they are needed.” she said.
Dunbar detailed the union’s demands.
“We’re not trying to get lifetime jobs. We’re striking for safe staffing, retirement with dignity, and employment and income security. We’re willing to go back to the table in two years,” he said. “Alta Bates has made profits of over eight million a year for the last three years now, so why are they planning to cut jobs and save money now? If they were really about patient care, they’d add staff now to increase the number of people who can serve patients. As it is, every hospital is understaffed.”
Since Alta Bates and Summit merged in 1999, services have shifted, Dunbar said. Workers complain that when they are re-hired at the new facility, their seniority does not transfer. They lose their pension plans and have to start over as if newly hired.
But Jill Gruen, hospital spokesperson for Alta Bates- Summit said the argument is specious. There are no plans to cut jobs or employees.
“We are here to preserve jobs, and the best way to do that is by creating strong institutions through consolidation. Because of a commitment to retraining and a policy of preferential hiring, very few, if any, jobs will be lost.”
When asked if employees transferring from one hospital to the next would lose seniority however, Gruen said, “I don’t know the answer to that.”
Ironically, while Alta Bates-Summit management and Local 250 officials carp for media coverage, those who have the most to lose are the strikers themselves.
Noah Rollins strikes for job security, but he remains fearful that striking today could affect his job security down the road.
“To be honest, this strike kind of puts us workers in the middle, between the union and management. I hope supporting our cause won’t affect my ability to continue working here,” said Rollins, looking over his shoulder at the hospital he has worked in for more than 20 years.
“I just wish there was a way to keep working while negotiations continued. But,” he said, pausing, “I’ll be here as long as it takes.” Then he rejoins the protesters chanting before the concrete façade of Alta Bates.