Health workers begin strike against University of California medical centers

Ronald Reagan UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) Medical Center is seen on Oct. 9, 2008 in Los Angeles.
Ronald Reagan UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) Medical Center is seen on Oct. 9, 2008 in Los Angeles.
David McNew/Getty Images

Thousands of health workers have begun a two-day strike over labor contracts at University of California medical centers across California, which could involve thousands of employees and prompted postponement of some surgeries.

The union representing some 13,000 hospital pharmacists, nursing assistants, operating room scrubs and other health care workers began the walkout at 4 a.m. Tuesday at medical facilities in cities including San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, San Francisco and Sacramento, home to UC Davis Medical Center.

Green-shirted picketers were in place at the Los Angeles facility. The union is battling over staffing and pension issues.

Tom Rosenthal, chief medical officer for UCLA hospitals, says that to ensure patient safety, they've brought in 400 temp workers to fill in at three campuses. They've also filed a court injunction to ensure certain staffers stay on the job.

"Pharmacists, for example," Rosenthal said. "You can't run a hospital safely without pharmacy, we give millions of doses of drugs — it's the mainstay of treatment for a lot of the patients, so there's nobody else who can do that work other than pharmacists. So they were enjoined by name and they are in the hospital."

On Monday, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge David Brown granted the injunction only partially, ordering 453 workers to remain on the job.

"If all respiratory therapists in the UC Burn Centers and all pharmacists working in UCSF's California Poison Control System were permitted to strike," the judge wrote in his ruling, "there is reasonable cause to believe that the strike would prevent delivery of an essential public service."

But Brown also said there was no reason that others could not strike as long as staffing remained at weekend levels for critical services.

Rosenthal said UCLA has about 700 patients in three hospitals — Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, UCLA Medical Center Santa Monica and the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital. UCLA also runs Mattel Children's Hospital, but it is not separately licensed and sits within the Ronald Reagan campus. Rosenthal says the level one trauma center at Ronald Reagan remains open, as does the emergency department at Santa Monica.
"We're very disappointed that the union has put their economic self-interest in front of the patients, but our job is to assure that the patients that are here are cared for properly and safely and that's what we're doing here."
"We're caring for patients exactly as usual, but it's not a usual day," he said. "We've had to do a whole ton of things to be sure we can, in fact, run safely. That's cost a lot of money, but that's not the most important issue. We're working hard to make sure it is safe and business as usual."

Kathryn Lybarger, who heads one of the unions representing workers on strike, says their main concern is patient care, too — but that they're being told to do more with less.

"That means then that their neighbors, your grandmother, who comes in here for care, is not getting the care that they need, and we can't stand for that anymore. The hospital is highly profitable and the UC executives are not putting those profits where they belong, which is patients. They are instead lining executives' pockets."

Rosenthal said that he thinks the strike is going to cost the UC medical centers between 4 and 5 million dollars.

"You don't have a good negotiation with someone who's talking to you through a bullhorn, so I think once these two days are over, we hope that the union and university negotiators will sit back down at a negotiating table and deal with the issues," Rosenthal said.

Lybarger spoke to NBC4 at a strike outside the UCLA Medical Center in Westwood. She says workers gave the University 10 days notice of the strike and have set up a patient protection task force so that, if there is an emergency inside, there are members willing to go in, work and then return to the picket line.

"If I say that we have a critical emergency that needs a particular union person to come in, they have agreed to do that and we're appreciative of that," Rosenthal said. "Because at the end of the day, the union may have issues, but the union and the university are completely in alignment about wanting to assure that the care of the patients is safe."

The workers, represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, contend that UC officials have allowed executive pensions to balloon, diverting money that would otherwise go to alleviate dangerously low staffing levels.

"We care about our patients and we feel that we're chronically understaffed and we need additional help," Ruben Gomez, a radiation therapist in Los Angeles, told KCBS-TV.

More than 2,000 workers were expected to walk out at UC facilities in Los Angeles and Santa Monica.

University officials prepared for the strike by postponing nonessential services, including some surgeries and some chemotherapy sessions for children.

"There may be delays," said Rosenthal. "Things are likely to be way slower than on a normal day. But things will be safe."

System officials said the main issue is the union's refusal to accept a new pension plan, similar to those of other state workers, that requires more employee contributions and reduces long-term benefits for new hires.

This story has been updated.