Kaiser Permanente nurses in Los Angeles on strike again

While nearly 5,000 registered nurses continue to strike in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area fighting against concessionary demands from profit powerhouse Allina Health, about 1,300 registered nurses (RNs) at Kaiser Permanente’s Los Angeles Medical Center (LAMC) started a four-day strike Thursday, with a list of grievances that mirror those of other striking nurses.

The action was called by the National Nurses United (NNU), a coalition of three unions including the AFL-CIO affiliated California Nurses Association (CNA).

The strike follows a well-known pattern: isolated action is called by the union to ensure that workers are allowed to protest. In such a controlled environment, they are disarmed and none of the issues and grievances are resolved. Another one-week strike at the LAMC last March ended with nothing more than an ominous statement by the NNU announcing “a restructured benefits package and higher wages.” In plain English, this is the guarantee that a token wage increase will be offset by cuts to crucial benefits.

LAMC nurses have been working without a contract for 6 years, with wages being frozen since 2011. They work in unsafe conditions of chronic understaffing and with inadequate equipment. Patient care suffers greatly from these deficiencies. In the words of one nurse, it’s “a matter of life and death.”

Last year, Kaiser Permanente reported a net income of $1.9 billion, with a growth in enrollments of 650,000 new patients, thanks to Obamacare. This influx only compounded and intensified the problems, as the hospital has taken full advantage of the increased customer base without making the necessary personnel adjustments.

The first day of strike action was characterized by a lower turnout than last March. While Kaiser made efforts to limit the impact of the strike by purposely parking large trucks in front of the hospital and cordoning off a “work in progress” area in order to reduce visibility and capacity, some of the nurses feel that a strike such as this won’t have any more effect than the last one.

The World Socialist Web Site spoke to some of the strikers.

Nimfa, an RN for 36 years, works in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). She described Kaiser’s offer as offensive: “A 1.5 percent increase from 2011, 2 percent a year for the next two years and a 5 year retroactive pay of $4,000! This does not even get us to the level of our SoCal counterparts, much less with Kaiser Northern California. Pension and health benefits are also changing. And one thing for sure, not for the better.”

Nimfa elaborated on wages: “Would you feel valued and respected when somebody offers you $4,000 to cover the last 5 years of frozen wages? $800 a year, that’s $66.66 a month, or $2.15 a day. Or would you honor it with a response and start haggling?”

She also commented on conditions: “Chronic understaffing, heavy patient load, issues with supplies and equipment to name a few. Kaiser is thriving; profit is up, awards right and left; on the back of nurses! They are celebrating on top of this great pyramid of corporate America, riding on nurses' backs who are left down below hauling stones brick by brick.”

Mae, an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) RN, angrily stated: “For the four strike days, Kaiser is offering to the replacement nurses the equivalent of what it offered us in back pay for 6 years. They’re cheating us while the corporate executives are taking big bonuses.”

She pointed out that “They tell the public we’re fully staffed, that’s a lie. We can’t even have our 30-minute break, as we’re in critical care. And they keep taking away from us. We’re the lowest paid nurses in Southern California.”

Exposing unsafe conditions, Mae revealed: “In my unit we should have a 1 to 2 nurse-patient ratio to ensure proper care. Instead we don’t have anyone to cover us during breaks and we end up covering 3 patients instead to allow our colleagues to eat. After 4 hours we can’t even get a 15-minute pause. Yet, Kaiser says we’re properly staffed!”

Her colleague, Marife, observed that the WSWS was the only reporting organization present: “Previously, the media would be present and interviewed us. Can you see anyone except you? These corporations control the media.”

Joshua works in the Cardiovascular Surgical Unit (CSU). He emphasized Kaiser’s responsibility: “It continues to hold on its side and not progress with patient safety. Since our last strike the situation hasn’t changed.

“The amount of money Kaiser is offering us in back pay is less than what one scab is getting paid in these 4 days,” he added. Commenting on the chance of losing health care and wage benefits on the negotiating table, he said: “We shouldn’t give them up. We work hard and that’s the minimum. And they’re already trying to take that away.”

Complaining about the class divide between nurses and the corporate oligarchy, Joshua stated: “Those executives are not willing to invest in their employees and therefore on patients’ care. They keep the money rather than have better patient care. Kaiser has been taking hundreds of thousands of new Obamacare members without increasing the workforce, putting more stress on us workers as well as patients.”

When asked why nurses are not expanding the strike to other sections of the working class, Joshua pointed out the difficulty of uniting in struggle with other nurses since union-negotiated contracts include a no-strike provision.

Raymond, an RN in the Neurosurgical Unit, noted: “Kaiser disregards nurse-patient ratio. On a step-down unit it should be 1 to 3, but they are putting an extra patient, bringing the ratio to 1 to 4, which is against California law.”

Commenting on wages, Raymond stated: “Everything goes up, except for wages, in our case, it’s been for 6 years now. Kaiser’s offer is unacceptable. My rent has increased $200 just in one year, and that doesn’t include everything else.”

Raymond sympathizes with the Bernie Sanders campaign: “I believe in free education, free health care. If Europe can do it, why can’t we? Unfortunately, the status quo in government is that if you have money you get all the benefits and tax breaks. Both parties are implicated.” He did admit, however, that Sanders is a capitalist politician.

Ann and Guillermo, both RNs from Pasadena Huntington Hospital, attended the rally in support of the strike, expressing their own grievances, the main one not having any labor representation. They reported that CNA has approached their hospital to obtain official labor recognition and recruit hundreds of new members.