East Bay Health Care Workers Strike Forces County to Disband the Boss
On day two of their five-day strike, Alameda Health System workers in California's East Bay won a landmark victory. After years of stalling, the elected Board of Supervisors of Alameda County suddenly announced they would disband the unelected Board of Trustees that has long mismanaged this public safety-net health care system.
In 1998, Alameda County supervisors decided to hand off administration of the county health care system to an unelected board, with an aim to cut spending. While the system remained public, it ceased to be directly funded by the county or under its jurisdiction; instead the county loaned AHS money and forced it to pay back any debts. This was part of a wave of privatization and outsourcing of public services across the county and the country.
The Board of Trustees soon turned to union-busting and dangerous cuts to care and staffing. According to health care workers, the COVID-19 pandemic made a bad situation into a nightmare, as AHS management responded to the pandemic by denying workers adequate PPE or training, laying off essential staff, and retaliating against workers who spoke up.
Yet even a month ago, Alameda County supervisors were unwilling to take AHS back under their direct control. Current County Supervisor Wilma Chan was also on the board in 1998, and voted then to give up democratic control of the health system. Chan, who chairs the Board of Supervisors’ health committee, until yesterday had been a skilled opponent of the county resuming responsibility. What forced the politicians to act was a strike with deep rank-and-file participation.
“When you have over 3,000 employees in a health care system, marching out and saying something is wrong, somebody has to listen to that," said Sheleka Carter, a community health outreach worker and AHS chapter secretary in Service Employees (SEIU) Local 1021. "How can you ignore it?”
The strike has forced politicians to take responsibility for the system, but the move is only the start of a fight to determine how AHS will be run. Details of how county government will manage the system and handle AHS debts to the county have yet to be hammered out. Nonetheless, for East Bay health care workers and patients, this victory marks a turning point.
“The privatization is stopped," said Carter. "It brings the system to a place where now the community has a say in how they get care and how the system is run. Employees have a voice about the changes that need to be made.”
In a rally Thursday at county headquarters, workers made clear they plan to strike until they win a fair contract for patients and workers alike.
"If it takes five strikes, we will strike five times," said Mawata Kamara, an emergency nurse at San Leandro Hospital and member of the California Nurses Association, whose members are also on strike at San Leandro and Alameda Hospitals. "We are ready!”
Keith Brower Brown is a graduate student instructor and member of United Auto Workers Local 2865 at the University of California, Berkeley.