OAKLAND, Calif. — Health care workers represented by United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) kicked off their campaign to renegotiate nearly 200 hospital and nursing home contracts covering over 75,000 workers with a spirited march and rally Feb. 20 at the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center campus here.

It’s the first time so many contracts in the health care industry have expired in the same year, an achievement the union says stems from a decade of work to build bargaining power by lining up expiration dates. The contracts, about evenly divided between hospitals and nursing homes, cover facilities throughout California, with a few more in five other states.

UHW represents every health care occupation except that of physician, including nurses, professional, technical and service classifications.

The union emphasizes that its demands are aimed at raising standards to deliver health care in hospitals and nursing homes as well as improving conditions for workers. Major goals include better staffing levels as well as equal pay for equal work, whether done in a hospital or a nursing home.

“Our goal is one standard of care for health care workers throughout the state, with expanded training opportunities, increased job security and significantly improved wages and benefits for workers across the industry,” UHW President Sal Rosselli said in a statement.

The kickoff brought together hundreds of workers from hospitals and nursing homes around California for a lively two-hour informational picket in front of the Summit complex’ main building, followed by a rally at a nearby skilled nursing facility.

As they picketed, workers shared their particular goals. “Our biggest concern is staffing levels,” said one certified nursing assistant at a nursing home. “At night we have only four nurses to care for 72 patients. I have to explain to patients why I can’t help them as soon as I’d like.”

Tami Luttrell, a dietary worker in Sacramento, said wages and working conditions had improved significantly since her workplace was unionized in 2002. “But,” she added, “our workload and schedules could definitely be better.”

Hospital environmental services worker Andrew Jaa, who participated in the kick-off with his wife, also a health care worker, topped his list with the need for management to respect workers and include them in decision-making. “I think we should have an equal role with management in making decisions about how we do our work,” he said.

Both Jaa and housekeeping worker Willie Bates also cited the need for better retiree benefits, with Bates pointing out that his contract lacks medical benefits for retirees.

A highlight of the rally was the appearance of former state Assemblymember Wilma Chan, now a candidate for the state Senate, who together with other local elected officials pledged her full support to the bargaining campaign.

The first hospital bargaining sessions were slated for the end of February, with nursing home talks scheduled to start in March.

United Healthcare Workers-West, with some 150,000 members, is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union.

mbechtel@ pww.org