California nurses protest against Schwarzenegger

SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)–California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has met a foe to match any from his blockbuster action movies: nurses.

To counter what they regard as Schwarzenegger’s strong-arm legal tactics to hold back staffing hikes, members of the state’s nurses’ union–the majority of whom are women–have maintained a vigorous schedule of well-attended protests, stunts to protest and embarrass the muscular governor and negative advertising campaigns.

On March 14, nurses managed a legal pin-down when a Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled that the governor had improperly invoked an emergency measure to suspend parts of a landmark nurse staffing law.

The judge ordered hospitals to comply with nurse-to-patient ratios immediately, which mandate 1 nurse to every 5 patients on medical and surgical wards, up from the former 1-to-6 ratio that the governor had moved to uphold.

Judge Judy Holzer Hersher also ruled the state could not suspend other provisions of the ratio law, such as allowing emergency rooms to break the ratios during very busy times. She called the governor’s emergency regulation “an end run around the regulatory process.”

The state, along with the California Hospital Association, filed an appeal within days seeking to overturn the ruling. Ken August, spokesperson for the state Department of Health Services, said the appeal will likely be heard in the next several weeks.

In the meantime the state will urge hospitals to comply with the law and has sent a letter to the hospitals to that effect.

State Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, an Oakland Democrat, will hold a hearing on the nurse staffing ratios on April 4.

At a Sacramento press conference, Perata predicted that the legislature would be “like junkyard dogs,” in their support of the nurses. He said the hearings would focus on whether the administration violated a legislative mandate to implement and enforce the staffing law.

Hospital Association Outcry

The California Hospital Association, an ally of Schwarzenegger in this issue, said hospitals are closing because they can’t meet the ratio requirements amid a severe nursing shortage. The association estimates hospitals will need an additional 4,000 nurses just to meet the new ratios on medical and surgical floors. This is on top of the 14,000 nurse vacancies that already exist at hospitals statewide, according to the association. Every hospital unit must meet ratio requirements, including 1 nurse to 2 patients on intensive care units and 1 nurse to every 6 patients on psychiatric wards.

“Last November, Governor Schwarzenegger courageously put the interests of patients ahead of the self-serving goals of the nurses’ labor union,” said Duane Dauner, president of the California Hospital Association. “Unfortunately, the recent court ruling invalidating these modest changes once again threatens access to quality patient care for all Californians.”

California is home to the nation’s largest and most powerful nurse’s union, the Oakland-based California Nurses Association, with 60,000 members, most of whom are women.

Starting last fall, Schwarzenegger and the union have been jousting over the 1999 landmark nurse-staffing law, which the nurses’ union sought for more than a decade.

“The governor says he’s for the people, but he’s not for the people of California, he’s for the corporations of California,” said Deborah Burger, the nursing union’s president, after the court ruling.

The union sought the ratios after numerous studies indicated that fewer nurses on shifts led to more mistakes and professional burnout. Without the nurse ratios, the union argues, more nurses will leave the profession, leading to an even greater nursing shortage.

As he battles nurses, Schwarzenegger has also provoked many teachers and firefighters with a package of proposals he may take directly to the voters by calling a special election this fall. The proposals include transforming pensions for state workers hired after July 2007 into 401(k) style plans and requiring merit pay for teachers.

Schwarzenegger’s stance on the ratios is “anti-women and anti-first responders” because he is putting corporate hospital interests ahead of nurses’ well-being, and ultimately, patient safety, Burger said.

Tensions Rose in November

The nurse-staffing law, signed by former Gov. Gray Davis, was the first in the nation to require hospitals to have a certain number of nurses for each patient on all wards. The regulations took effect in 2004. This past January, ratios on busy medical and surgical units were scheduled to increase. But in November Schwarzenegger blocked those new increases, causing tensions with nurses to rise.

The California Nurses Association immediately took the matter to state court, arguing that Schwarzenegger could not halt the law by using an emergency regulation, a little-used rule that allows the governor to suspend state laws during emergencies, such as an earthquake. The judge ultimately ruled that the nursing shortage did not constitute a dire emergency and the administration had therefore overstepped its bounds.

Name Calling in December

Schwarzenegger struck back in December during the state’s annual Governor’s Conference on Women and Families, attended by 10,000 women, when he called the nurses, who showed up to protest his action on the ratios, “special interests” who are mad because “I kick their butt.”

Since then, the governor has continued to rail against unions representing teachers and nurses as special interests. In an interview with MSNBC’s Hardball host Chris Matthews–held at Stanford University and protested by nurses–he said he “loves” nurses and teachers but opposes the unions representing them.

Last week, a group of nurses crashed a Los Angeles fundraiser where participants paid $22,000 to $89,000 a plate to dine with Schwarzenegger.

The nurses sat down at a table and offered to pay 22 cents each–a comment on the minimum per-plate donation of $22,000–before being escorted out. Nurses have also used stunts such as showing up at movie premieres the governor attends and launching a $22,000 television, radio and print campaign.

And this week, nurses and teachers teamed up to launch a new radio ad campaign attacking Schwarzenegger for his “special interest” comments.

“Teachers and nurses aren’t ‘special interests’ you need to ‘battle,’ Governor Schwarzenegger, they’re at the heart of our communities–working to improve our health care and strengthen our local schools,” the ad says. Burger, the president of the nurses’ union, said she will not let up on the campaign against the governor and his proposals, including changes to the state’s pension plan.

“In the long run, it’s a fight we have to keep up,” she said. “I don’t think we have any other choice.”

Rebecca Vesely is a health care reporter at the Oakland Tribune.

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