Strike is imminent as unions, Alameda Health System, and county supes trade barbs

Alameda County supervisors on Tuesday afternoon in a virtual board meeting with Alameda Health System CEO Delvecchio Finley.

With 3,000 nurses and health care workers at Alameda Health System hospitals less than 24 hours from a five-day strike, Alameda County supervisors attempted on Tuesday to move both sides toward a last-minute agreement.

But after several hours of testimony, nurses and other health care employees at Oakland’s Highland Hospital, San Leandro Hospital, and Alameda Hospital appear certain to walk off the job on Wednesday.

Alameda County supervisors made comments on Tuesday certain to spell the end of AHS’ current governance model. All five supervisors on Tuesday registered support for taking greater control of the hospital system in the near future. Unions have lobbied for the change for much of the past year as labor strife has grown.

The acrimony between SEIU Local 1021, the California Nurses Association (CNA) and Alameda Health System was in full relief at Tuesday’s Alameda County Board of Supervisors meeting. Union representatives slammed Alameda Health System’s leadership team, while some members of AHS’ Board of Trustees strongly refuted claims by the union, leaving the Board of Supervisors in the middle of the disagreement. Several supervisors directed vitriol toward AHS, as well.

“What will stop this strike is a fair contract,” said John Pearson, an emergency room nurse at Highland Hospital and Alameda Health System chapter president for SEIU local 1021. “We have been waiting and ready to bargain in good faith with AHS for the whole 10 months that we’ve been bargaining,” Pearson told the county supervisors. The unions will strike on Wednesday, Pearson added, but they are willing to resume negotiations during the work stoppage and beyond.  

Last week, classified workers represented by SEIU Local 1021 and nurses led by the California Nurses Association, announced a five-day strike that will begin on Wednesday, Oct. 7. The move comes after nurses at Highland Hospital in Oakland, San Leandro Hospital, and Alameda Hospital have been working without a new contract for two years. SEIU Local 1021 members have been without a contract for the past 10 months. The unions said negotiations hit an impasse, while AHS management asserts mediation was turned down by the unions.

Alameda County Supervisor Richard Valle said he plans to join the picket line on Thursday in front of the county building in Oakland.

Alameda Health System CEO Delvecchio Finley said negotiators for the health care provider offered the unions a 2.5 percent annual raise for the next three years, although with no wage bump this year due to uncertainty from the pandemic. In order to avert a strike, AHS increased the offer to 3 percent for two years.

Finley later urged the Board of Supervisors to call on the unions to halt their plans for a strike and return to the bargaining table, while also seeking additional funding support from the county. Finley suggested increasing or eliminating the debt limit imposed by the board on AHS, and restructuring pension costs obligations.

AHS’ Board of Trustees also registered concern over labor’s preference for including the Board the Supervisors in the dispute.

“The unions have to reach an agreement with the only entity with fiduciary responsibility for the operation of AHS at this time – the Board of Trustees,” said Noha Aboelata, a member of the AHS Board of Trustees. Aboelata suggested the unions have leaned on some county supervisors to nudge labor negotiations along. “In light of that, we really encourage the Board of Supervisors to provide the trustees the space needed to carry out our duties.” 

In a brief moment of candor followed by a dose of bluntness, Finley told the Board of Supervisors, “I submit AHS has made some mistakes. If the union were being honest, they would do the same. Nonetheless, the strike is egregious, unnecessary, causes harm to the community, and does nothing to advance our efforts to ensure the best possible care to our all.”  

Alameda County supervisors, however, did not share Finley’s assumption of blame on both sides of the bargaining table. Supervisors Wilma Chan, Nate Miley, and Richard Valle sharply criticized Finley’s handling of the long-simmering labor problems at AHS, in addition to issues with the Board of Trustees.

“The strike could have been avoided,” Chan said. “I’ve been telling the trustees for years, and leadership of AHS, that in this type of situation, everything is about relationships and trust.”

“I think common sense would say, when the CNA contract has been stuck for two years and the SEIU contract has been stuck for 10 months, that there is a problem there and there’s always a chance of some labor action. I think there is a basic lack of understanding by the AHS leadership on how to bargain with public unions,” Chan added.

“At this point, I would ask each of the trustees, ‘Are you willing to turn the curve? Are you willing to understand what the problem is? Are you willing to listen? Are you willing to hold the administration accountable?” Chan said.

Valle was even more pointed in his criticism of AHS’ leadership. “Thank you for service, we appreciate what you have done to this point, but clearly you are no longer effective,” Valle said, in comments directed at the AHS Board of Trustees.

Valle then followed with stinging criticism of Finley, in which he questioned his people skills. “That is a key for being a leader,” Valle said. “That’s key when it comes to being in a position when people have certain expectations of a leader, and that, for the moment, has fallen.”

AHS’ leadership model, in which its receives large amounts of county tax dollars, but is governed with autonomy, was described as broken by several supervisors on Tuesday. Valle said a change in the model is “inevitable.” Chan is currently leading an effort to study possible governing models. A report and recommendations could be offered to the Board of Supervisors in early 2021, Chan said.

“The model we have is not working. This is not the first time we’ve heard these problems,” Miley said. “This is not first time we’ve been down this road. I’m ashamed that we’re here. That all this laundry is being aired publicly here by both sides.”

Finley, in one of the few moments of agreements on Tuesday, sided with Miley and the entire Board’s assessment. “We agree with the unions and we ask that you promptly convene a transparent process for exploring options for changing the governing structure of AHS, possibly including returning it to the county,” Finley said.