Nearly 23,000 registered nurses began a one-day strike Thursday at 34 Northern and Central California hospitals in what was one of the largest such labor actions in years.
Hospitals across the region brought in replacement workers and remained open, though many elective surgeries were postponed.
Nurses could be seen on hospital picket lines across the Bay Area, waving signs and urging passing motorists to honk and shout in support of their cause.
The president of the largest labor federation in the nation joined striking nurses on a Berkeley picket line. He criticized corporate hospital leaders for what union members say are 200 proposed cutbacks by Sutter Health in employee benefits and patient services.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka took the stage at the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center campus as the picket line swelled to about 200 nurses carrying signs and chanting "chop from the top."
"It's great to be here on the front lines of the struggle for good, quality health care and supporting the men and women standing up to corporate bullying and saying, 'We've had enough,'" Trumka told the crowd.
"I'm very, very mad," said Ann Gaebler, a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley and a union negotiator. "I joined the negotiations team because I was just astounded that an employer that I've worked for 30 years could show so much disrespect."
Trumka said the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United, which organized the strike, is supported by union "brothers and sisters" nationwide. "You are the last line of defense for patients," he said.
At Antioch's Sutter Delta Medical Center, about 50 pickets twirled signs that pointed out the importance of nurses in patient care and what they say are fat salaries for management. Union officials say Sutter CEO Pat Fry earns nearly $4 million annually. "Sutter, Sutter, you can't hide; we can see your greedy side," yelled nurse Melissa Thompson.
Union spokesman Charles Idelson said hospitals have proposed eliminating sick pay and reducing health insurance, maternity leave, educational benefits and what nurses say is their right to advocate on patients' behalf, amid other cutbacks.
"I'm no medical expert but even I know that having sick nurses care for sick patients is -- sick," Trumka said.
The hospital's management argues that their nurses are well-paid and say they are trying to cut costs during tough economic times.
"We remain committed to providing our nurses competitive wages and benefits, while also doing our part to make health care more affordable for our patients," said a statement from Alta Bates Summit Medical Center.
Hospital leaders with Children's Hospital Oakland and Alta Bates Summit have told union leaders they will prevent striking workers from returning until Tuesday because they have signed five-day contracts with temporary workers.
"We have hired qualified pediatric and specialty replacement nurses, many of whom have worked at Children's (Hospital Oakland) during the last two strikes, and health care professionals to work alongside our nonstriking nurses, physicians and other employees during the five-day period," said Nancy Shibata, chief nursing officer at Children's Hospital, where about 50 nurses picketed.
Shibata said the "misguided action by CNA only hurts the infants, children, and parents who are forced to reschedule surgeries that they've been planning on for months.
"That the union would attempt to disrupt health services for the children and families in communities throughout the state is irresponsible and thoughtless," she said.
Kaiser nurses recently signed a contract, but held a sympathy strike Thursday to support striking members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers and Kaiser co-workers who are facing management demands for deep cuts in their health coverage and retirement plans.
Kaiser workers are expected back on the job Friday. But in Santa Clara on Thursday dozens of nurses joined mental health care providers and others who carried signs reading "some cuts don't heal," and "safe staffing now."
Ken Rogers, a psychologist at Kaiser in Santa Clara, said one reason he went on strike is because understaffing forces patients to wait up to six weeks for an appointment with a therapist.
In a statement, Kaiser officials challenged the reasons behind the sympathy strike.
"This work stoppage is about labor issues related to contract negotiations and benefits proposals. We strongly disagree with anyone who may claim that this is about issues related to quality," said Gay Westfall, senior vice president of human resources for the Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Health Plan.
Genel Morgan, a nurse at Mills-Peninsula for 40 years and a union negotiator, said she is upset about Sutter's demands to reduce the pay for nurses who come to work from an "on call" status.
"Sutter's focus is on money," she said. "The nurses' focus is on patients. Even though Sutter says they are in the business for patients, their actions speak louder than words."
No arrests were reported on strike lines Thursday. Negotiations resume Monday.
Bay Area News Group staff writers Mark Gomez, Neil Gonzales, Harry Harris, Paul Thissen, Paul Burgarino, Robert Salonga, Doug Oakley, Chris Metinko and Sandy Kleffman contributed to this report.