UCSD Nurses Picket for Better Wages, Won’t Rule Out Strike

Times Staff Writer

On the heels of a successful nurses’ strike in San Francisco, about 200 unionized nurses at UC San Diego Medical Center picketed Wednesday to demand that the University of California system give them markedly higher salaries and better working conditions when their contract expires Monday.

Pickets also turned out at UC Davis and are expected today at UC medical facilities in Irvine, Berkeley and San Francisco, and in Los Angeles on Friday.

The informational picketing marks an increase in the campaign by the California Nurses Assn., which was behind the San Francisco strike by nurses at private hospitals, to improve working conditions for the 6,000 registered nurses in the UC system.

Union representatives Wednesday would not rule out the possibility that nurses will walk off their jobs systemwide, especially in light of the 21% pay raises won by the striking San Francisco nurses in August.


“It has had an impact on people,” said Michele Molotsky, organizer for the nurses group in San Diego. “People are seeing that other nurses are taking action. They are feeling more empowered, and feeling it can make a difference.”

Negotiators have been meeting since early October without reaching agreement on a new two-year contract. The existing two-year agreement expires Monday.

The nurses have been demanding a 20% salary increase, along with systemwide wage parity. They have also asked for changes in overtime policies and holiday pay, as well as longevity pay and other staffing changes to encourage nurses to stay in the profession.

Greg Kramp, chief negotiator for the UC Board of Regents, said the nurses this week reduced their wage increase demand to 15% but are holding firm on wage parity--the issue San Diego nurses say affects them most.


UC and nurse association figures show that San Diego nurses are among the lowest paid in the system, and they also are being offered the lowest wage increase.

Offer Raised Slightly

Tuesday night, UC raised its wage offers slightly to a range of 3.5% in San Diego to 10% in Los Angeles, with no attempt to even out salaries among the facilities, Kramp said.

That would leave a system in which top-paid nurses in San Francisco earn $4,700 a year more than those in similar positions at the lowest-paid facilities, UC Irvine and UCSD, according to nurse association figures.

Bringing all 6,000 nurses up to San Francisco pay scales would cost the UC system $14.8 million a year, even if no other wage increase were granted, Kramp said. Current salary costs for registered nurses are about $148 million, he said.

“Our position is that we are proposing to pay market rates based upon the salary survey information for each of the geographical areas in the state,” Kramp said. “We conduct very extensive salary surveys of all the competing hospitals.”

Those surveys show that the average private-sector nurse salary ranges from lows of $31,591 in Irvine and $33,116 in San Diego to $38,127 in San Francisco, he said.

The lowest average salaries for UC nurses are at Irvine and San Diego, both at about $32,400, according to nurse association figures. The highest average is in San Francisco, at $36,804.


Move Angered Nurses

The UC system’s latest wage offer increased its proposed raise for nurses in San Diego to 3.5%, a move that Molotsky said angered UCSD nurses.

“The nurses’ reaction to that was: ‘First they slap us in the face, and then they punch us in the stomach,’ ” Molotsky said.

Although San Diego was held at 3.5% overall, nurses at San Francisco were offered 4.5% immediately and 5.5% more beginning in June.

At Irvine, where nurses earn an average of $11 a month less than UCSD nurses, they were offered 3.5% immediately but another 2.5% next May.

In Los Angeles, nurses were offered 10% immediately, 18% for nurse anesthetists.

It is unclear both to union officials and hospital administrators how many nurses would go out if a strike were called.

UCSD, for example, has about 1,000 nurses, but only 400 of those belong to the union. Since about 200 nurses work only on an on-call basis, the effects of a strike by 400 nurses would be almost wiped out if all 200 of those came to work, Molotsky said.


However, Teresa Conrow, organizer for the union in Los Angeles, noted that more nurses are joining the union as Monday’s contract expiration approaches. She said many of the strikers during a January walkout by nurses at county-run hospitals in Los Angeles were not union members.

John Stavros, marketing director for UCSD Medical Center, said a strike could force the hospital to stop admitting patients for elective surgeries and to transfer patients to other hospitals.

The hospital would concentrate its staffing efforts on special units such as the trauma center, burn unit and neonatal intensive care, Stavros said.

“We’d do the best we could to keep those open,” he said.

Nurses see the nationwide nursing shortage as giving them a particularly good chance to raise pay scales and alleviate stressful working conditions that they say compromise patient care.

Not only are there already 300,000 fewer registered nurses nationwide than hospitals need, the nurses group said, but nursing school enrollments fell 26% from 1983 to 1987. At UCSD, 11% of the registered-nurse positions are vacant.

Meanwhile, hospitals are trying to save money by cutting back on staffing.

“The UC system needs to make a commitment to nursing,” said Linda Proctor, a UCSD nurse and leader among the local nurses.

She noted that a procedural change in July resulted in fewer nurses on medical-surgical floors at UCSD, yet the same amount of work needs to be done.

“What it all comes down to is nurses are forced to work harder, to give up breaks and still not be able to do the kind of job they think is necessary,” Proctor said. “To go to work and be able to accord only half of what we consider quality care is very frustrating.”

Stavros denied that the staffing changes have led to fewer nurses. The number of registered nurses at the hospital has not changed, he said.

Molotsky said that, after the UC situation is settled, she plans to begin work on unionizing nurses at other San Diego-area hospitals.