UCSF medical centers prepare for strike

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AFSCME 3299 President Kathryn Lybarger.

On Tuesday morning at 4 a.m., a 48-hour strike will begin at University of California medical centers across the state.

The strike was called by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299, a union representing more than 13,000 UC patient care technical workers.

AFSCME has been at an impasse on contract negotiations with UC for months. Administrators have pointed to proposed pension reform measures as the central issue, while the union has highlighted rising executive salaries and bonuses that they deem unfair at a time when frontline staff positions have been cut. AFSCME also recently called for new caps on UC executives’ pensions.

Speaking on a conference call earlier today, Jack Stobo, senior vice president for health sciences and services at the UC system, told reporters that the upcoming strike would affect patient care. He said 150 surgeries had to be rescheduled, and estimated that some 100 patient transfers would be delayed. “We have canceled a number of chemotherapy sessions and approximately half of radiation sessions with patients who are about to start radiation therapy,” he added. 

UC administrators pegged the total cost of the two-day strike at about $20 million for the entire system, mostly associated with hiring temporary staffers. They did not provide the number of temporary staffers that would be brought on. Stobo said the strike “will impact our ability to provide the quality services that we’re committed to provide to a large number of patients.”

AFSCME, on the other hand, says it has been working for months to craft a patient protection plan. "We have a patient protection task force in place in the event of a medical emergency," such as an event that would cause a major influx of patients, AFSCME 3299 spokesperson Todd Stenhouse told the Bay Guardian. "Our workers are the ones ... who understand the stakes. That's why they've taken pains to make sure patients are protected."

Union representatives say they are striking in part due to concern about the long-term erosion of patient care, stemming from cuts to frontline staff positions earlier this year.

“This strike is not just about the next two days – it’s about the fact that UC is endangering its patients every day with chronic understaffing and reckless cost cutting,” said AFSCME 3299 President Kathryn Lybarger. “If we don’t stand up to it now, we are inviting disaster when thousands of new patients begin flooding UC hospitals with the onset of the Affordable Care Act in the coming year.”

Earlier today, a California Superior Court decision enjoined certain respiratory therapists and other critical classifications from striking, but the ruling does not prevent the strike from going forward. The decision stemmed from an effort by UC to halt the strike by petitioning for injunctive relief with the Public Employees Relations Board (PERB). The labor board upheld the union's right to strike and only sought a temporary injunction in court.

Meanwhile, AFSCME-represented UC service workers will also hold a "sympathy strike" in support of patient care employees, and the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE), a union which represents pharmacists, clinical lab scientists, social workers and other health care professionals, is also planning a daylong sympathy strike on May 21. 

Jelger Kalmijn, systemwide president of UPTE, told the Bay Guardian that his union membership had voted to strike because “we support our sisters and brothers who work at UCSF.” He added that UPTE is also in contract negotiations with UC, and noted that pension reform is a key issue. “People stay here because of the benefits and the pension,” Kalmijn said. “It’s a serious concern. When [UC] makes half a billion in profit, why should employees have to give up their right to retire with dignity?”