The ripple effects of a large-scale walkout

Why Thursday's strikes could foreshadow labor disputes in other states

Topics: Benefits, Labor Expense, Workforce, Compensation, Staffing, Recession/Downturn, Market Trends, Strategy

September 22, 2011

Cassandra Blohowiak, Associate Editor

As nearly 23,000 California nurses staged a walkout on Thursday, experts say the historic strike could be a bellwether for upcoming labor contract negotiations in other states.

Since the recession began, hospitals nationwide—including facilities in the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania—have been rocked by labor disputes. In June 2010, roughly 12,000 Minnesota nurses staged a one-day walkout that affected 14 hospitals statewide.

Meanwhile, health care labor unions have been expanding quickly and winning hundreds of elections. Department of Labor data show that the California Nurses Association (CNA) increased its spending from $15 million in 2000 to $61 million in 2009, the Sacramento Bee reports. Altogther, health care unions in 2010 held 264 elections and won 71% of them, Modern Healthcare reports. That pace has slowed in 2011, as health care unions only held 85 elections across the first half of the year, but they also won 75% of them, according to a report from IRI Consultants and the American Hospital Association.

According to a Washington Post report last year, unions may appeal to RNs and health workers concerned about job security as the federal health reform law is implemented, and lawmakers consider measures to reduce the national deficit.

What the unions are seeking

Thursday's planned walkout—which would largely affect the Sutter Health and Kaiser Permanente systems–involves nearly 4,000 members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and 5,000 members of the CNA/National Nurses United. About 17,000 nurses and 2,000 stationary engineers at Kaiser also planned to participate in a sympathy strike to support NUHW.

According to NUHW leaders, Kaiser is seeking significant cuts in health care and retirement benefits for workers while posting profits in 2010. Meanwhile, CNA leaders have warned that Sutter's contract requests could negatively affect patient care and nursing standards. Specifically, CNA spokesperson Charles Idelson said Sutter has proposed eliminating paid sick leave and reducing health insurance benefits.

Commenting on the California walkout, CNA spokesperson Liz Jacobs told the Briefing that although a strike is a last-resort action that nurses don't take lightly, "the unity behind the nurses is very strong and should send a message to hospitals that they need to change their priorities."

However, Karen Garner, communications director at Sutter, said the "union is pushing unrealistic proposals that will increase the cost of health care." She said, the system is "committed to offering our nurses competitive wages and benefits," adding that an average full-time nurse earns $136,000 under a CNA contract.

Is the Calif. strike a bellwether for other states?

Experts say the California strike has the potential to substantially affect labor contract negotiations at other hospitals nationwide, especially if the walkout yields accomplishments at the negotiating table.

Noting that California is a large, unionized market, G. Roger King, a partner at Jones Day who specializes in health care labor, told the Briefing that officials across the nation follow developments in the Golden State closely.

Comparing Thursday's strikes to last year's demonstrations in Minnesota, King noted that "in many ways [the California strikes] are more symbolic" to other hospitals and "will impact a great number of people and garner national attention." According to King, "how staffing issues are resolved in California have had a significant impact on how they are dealt with elsewhere."

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