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Biggest Healthcare Strike Ever

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 demands.

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 RNs 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 hardball. 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 RNs 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 nurse!”

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 day.

Then Katie Rhomer and Kathie Donahue, Kaiser RNs, 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, Kaiser!”

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 self.

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 RNs 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 continues.

Cal Winslow has written extensively for CounterPunch 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 cwinslow@berkeley.edu

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Cal Winslow is author of Labor’s Civil War in California,(PM Press) and an editor of Rebel Rank and File (Verso). His latest book is E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left (Monthly Review). He can be reached at cwinslow@mcn.org

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