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Thousands of California nurses strike for better working conditions and patient care

Nurses begin a two-day walk-out at Kaiser Permanente's Los Angeles Medical Center. (Twitter / California Nurses)

Nurses begin a two-day walk-out at Kaiser Permanente’s Los Angeles Medical Center. (Twitter / California Nurses)

Five thousand nurses throughout California, represented by National Nurses United and the California Nurses Association, are holding a mix of one and two-day strikes over the next two days. Picketing for 1,100 nurses and their supporters began at 7 a.m. on Thursday at Kaiser Permanente’s Los Angeles Medical Center, and will start early Friday at Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Torrance, Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica and other hospitals. Workers, many of them employed by some of the state’s largest non-profit health care companies, are calling for wage increases, a traditional demand for union contract fights, along with improved staffing policies to improve patient safety.

“As the healthcare industry continues to change, the role of the registered nurse remains the same, to advocate for our patients,” said Intensive Care Unit registered nurse Heather Garrant in Torrance. “We want patient safety regulations and protections added to our contract. Patients come first.”

Nurses’ working conditions, they argue, are also critically bound-up in their patient’s well being. A number of nurses working in hospitals owned by the Sutter Corporation will also be striking, citing recent budget cutbacks and staffing concerns. In a press statement, emergency room nurse Debra Bucalatto said, “Sutter is offering health care plans to the public that are better than what they are offering their own nurses. We need adequate health care for ourselves and for our families along with staffing conditions that are safe … Sutter is trying to cut corners despite tremendous profits.”

Similar to fast food workers’ Fight for 15 campaign, strikers have also taken aim at the hearty incomes of non-profit health care corporation CEOs. A report released back in January by the Sacramento Bee found that Sutter’s Patrick Fry is the city’s highest-paid non-profit CEO, bringing home $3,862,787 last year.

Over 1,500 NNU-represented nurses in Chicago called off their strike after reaching a tentative agreement late Monday night with the University of Chicago Medical Center, where registered nurses have been working without a contract since October. They will vote whether or not to ratify the proposed contract early next week on May 5.

The nurses’ strike action comes as care work — a broad category including registered nurses, housekeepers, nursing home staff and more — becomes an increasingly militant and innovative edge of the labor movement, with NNU in particular lending its support to causes traditionally considered outside organized labor’s purview. The union, for instance, was a major supporter of the People’s Climate March in September, and turned out on picket lines for the United Steelworkers’ historic nationwide refinery strike last month.

Another major force in organizing care workers has been the National Domestic Workers Alliance, or NDWA, which represents housekeepers and caregivers for the elderly within 45 local affiliate organizations in 26 cities around the country. In an interview with Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen last month, NDWA Director Ai-Jen Poo explained that focusing on care work is “not just about domestic work, it’s really about the values that will shape the economy of the future. It’s about what the social contract will look like and what kind of opportunity it will create.”

While nursing has long been a unionized profession, domestic workers — a majority of whom are women — have long been excluded from basic New Deal labor protections, in no small part because many are undocumented women of color. Through actions like this week’s strikes and that by fast food employees earlier this month, nurses, housekeepers and traditionally marginalized workers in the service sector may well be redefining the face — and fight — of organized labor.