California Hospital Strikes: Health Care At Center Of Labor Disputes

More than 20,000 nurses and hospital workers will likely go on strike throughout California later this week, in one of the largest such work stoppages the state has seen in years.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the walkout will be largely the result of a dispute over health care benefits for workers who deliver health care, labor leaders say.

"There are major cuts to health care and retirement benefits on the table," said Leighton Woodhouse, a spokesman for the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), the union negotiating with Kaiser Permanente. "These cuts are unacceptable."

Starting Wednesday the strikes would affect dozens of hospitals across the state, including facilities under Kaiser and Sutter Health, two of the largest providers in California. Most of the workers will be walking off for 24 hours, although some will be off the job for longer. More than 1,000 registered nurses at Los Angeles Medical Center, a Kaiser hospital with NUHW employees, plan to strike for three full days, marking the third and longest of their strikes during negotiations with management.

Kaiser did not offer details of its plans for the possible strike, but a spokesperson for the non-profit said in a statement, "We want our members and patients to know that in the event of a strike, Kaiser Permanente is well prepared to continue providing high-quality health care and service, which is always our first priority."

The possible walkout wouldn't be so large if thousands of members of the California Nurses Association (CNA) hadn't laid plans for a "sympathy" strike in conjunction with NUHW. The CNA has roughly 17,000 workers at Kaiser facilities across the state. National Nurses United, the parent group for the union, said in a press release that its members would be striking for a day to protest "big cuts" in health care benefits for nurses and to "support Kaiser coworkers" at California hospitals.

Woodhouse says that under Kaiser's proposals, workers would end up chipping in more money to their health care plans. He also says that workers' defined-benefit pension plans could be frozen and switched to a less desirable defined-contribution plan, which is more like a 401K.

Kaiser would not discuss the negotiations, but in their statement Kaiser officials implied that union members haven’t been bargaining fairly.

"While we recognize NUHW’s legal right to conduct a strike, we believe the bargaining table is the best place to resolve differences. Regardless of the union's behavior, we will continue to negotiate in good faith, and hope the union will soon engage constructively in bargaining with us."

Woodhouse, however, accuses Kaiser of using the sluggish economy as an excuse for "takeaways" at a non-profit that seems to be fairing well.

"A lot of employers are taking advantage of this economic climate, even though many are highly profitable," Woodhouse said of contract disputes generally in the state. "There's a lot going on with labor around California."

In addition to the Kaiser dispute, several grocery chains narrowly avoided a large strike when they finally reached an agreement with store workers over a new contract this week.

Health care benefits figured prominently in that dispute as well. Negotiators for the United Food and Commercial Workers union had said their top goal was maintaining comprehensive and affordable health care for members working at Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons grocery stores. For months the union and the grocers couldn't agree on how much workers would be required to contribute to the health care fund.

Although details of the final contract have not been released, the UFCW told the L.A. Times that it represents a "win-win" for both sides.

Watch: NUHW members explain why they're striking at Kaiser facilities: