University of California Patient Care Workers engaged in a two-day strike May 21 through May 23 in protest of stagnating contract negotiations between the University of California system and the union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299. Over 97 percent of workers voted in support of the strike, charging hospital profit incentives and “golden handshake” UC Executive pensions as antithetical to quality patient care.
The 48-hour strike commenced on Tuesday, May 21, at 4 a.m., continuing through Thursday morning. Collective bargaining negotiations between AFSCME and the UC had recently reached an impasse—unable to reach an agreement on the terms and conditions of employment for the EX Unit, the workers nearly unanimously voted to strike.
AFSCME representative Todd Stenhouse explained why the medical workers voted for this unprecedented first-time strike.
“These folks have devoted their lives to the cause of quality patient care. Their biggest concerns have been the UC diverting resources away from patients into the pockets of executives and other non-patient care programs.”
AFSCME Local 3299 represents nearly 13,000 UC Patient Care Technical Workers (EX Unit) that include nursing aides, MRI technologists, surgical technicians, diagnostic sonographers, and pharmacy technicians. UC Hospital Service Workers (SX Unit) also announced engaged in a sympathy walkout strike in solidarity of the union’s grievances.
Besides the majority patent care workers, the executive staff of the UC Medical system at individual hospitals is composed of a head director, executive hospital management, and administrative personnel. Executive staff is typically paid a larger amount for the key administrative role for managing a large workforce. The executive opposition insists that cost-cutting measures to the hospital should not detriment or diminish the advancement of their pension pay and wages.
UC Santa Barbara, like UC Santa Cruz and UC Merced, is one of the California universities without an on-campus hospital. However, as taxpayer-funded institutions, the hospitals’ strikes can have reverberating consequences across all UC campuses.
“These misguided priorities are not limited to the UC health system. Students on every campus have noticed these things. The only thing rising as much as student tuition is the rise in executive millionaires—500 percent since 2006,” said Stenhouse.
State and local political leaders from across California attended picket lines at the various medical centers. With many grateful community patients standing in the crowd, state assemblymen, city council members, and public health professionals attested to the essential role of the workers in providing quality healthcare. The speakers authenticated the vital function of the patient care workers and asserted their critical participation with the potential renewal of collective bargaining. The union members are attempting to find common ground with the executives—eventually reaching an agreement on core proposals to protect future patients.
The assistance of the Patient Care Workers was indispensible to the medical services provided by the university hospitals, so plans were put in place to ensure coverage during the strike in case of emergencies. The Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) confirmed the UC Patient Worker’s right to strike, but concurrently filed a limited injunction for nearly two-dozen to remain on staff at UC Medical Facilities. Despite these measures, AFSCME’s Patient Protection Plan allowed strikers to leave the demonstration and provide emergency care to patients.
Central to the protest is AFSCME’s contention that measures imposed by a for-profit hospital system diminish the quality of patient care.
“This is evidence of a cultural shift; it’s a race to the bottom. No one’s asking for a Porsche or a yacht—they just don’t want to short-change frontline care,” said Stenhouse. Even though executive staff provides no medical service, most of the extra revenue has been directed to ballooning hospital executive pay—increased over $100 million since 2009.
During the bargaining process, AFSCME steadfastly appealed for lower caps on UC executive pensions, paid for by taxpayers, patients, and the low-wage hospital care staff. Also among its proposals were safe-staffing committees and restrictions on temporary and volunteer workers for frontline emergency care. The executive party countered by maintaining that cost cutting measures in the labor force were essential to streamlining the workplace. This is reflected in the decisions of recent years. While wages and employment for paid staff positions have remained fixed, outsourcing for inexperienced temporary work and non-care hospital administrators have been on the rise.
“When over-entitled executives starve hospitals of resources to do what they need, it comes at the expense of frontline care. This strike was about something much bigger than the last two days; it’s about what happens in the future,” said Stenhouse.
The AFSCME website provides testimonials from doctors, patient-care advocates, students, and labor leaders, all of whom paint a grim picture of the UC hospital culture. Many argue that the UC hospital system is undergoing a deficient paradigm change if the chief priority is anything but patient care. They contend that professional and ethical standards cannot be met in the face of lay-offs and reduced compensation—UC Executives cannot boost their bank accounts at the expense of public health.
With facilities in Los Angeles, Irvine, San Francisco, Davis, and San Diego, the UC Medical system is a $6.9 billion industry that serves over 4 million patients annually, earning hundreds of millions in profits. AFSCME’s protest is rooted in the incongruous results of this financial success—patient care jobs are being slashed, necessary resources allocated to executive payouts, and insufficient responses to emergent patient needs.