Keck workers go on strike to demand better benefits

In the center of USC’s Health Sciences Campus Wednesday, a crowd of red-shirted demonstrators stood with picket-signs, chanting over the din of cars driving past, which occasionally honked in support. These health care workers participated in a one-day strike to demand better wages and more equitable treatment.

In negotiations that have been ongoing for over a year, Keck School of Medicine of USC staff represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers has been trying to reach an agreement on a contract with USC-Keck.

Their primary complaints are short-staffing that strains adequate patient care, low wages that force workers to go on government assistance and a discriminatory lack of retirement and tuition benefits afforded to other USC employees.

Striking alongside NUHW workers were cafeteria employees working for Sodexo, a multinational food services company that employs 133,000 workers nationwide. Also picketing in solidarity was the California Nurses Association.

“It is not okay to short staff all of the departments: nursing, respiratory, PCT. At the end of the day we are running around, and really not taking care of the patients the way they deserve,” said Adela Rea, a respiratory therapist at Keck, during a midday rally. “This is a place of healing. If we rush that process and short staff, we’re not really healing, we’re just rushing them through.”

Keck administration has refuted these claims of short-staffing and poor treatment.

“This strike has nothing to do with patient care. It is a purely economic strike,” said Rod Hanners, chief operating officer of Keck.

Hanners emphasized the importance of remaining affordable and competitive with comparable health institutions such as Cedars-Sinai and the UCLA Health system.

The crux of the labor dispute, according to Hanners, amounted to three articles of negotiation out of 27 others that were agreed upon.

“We either enhanced a benefit or kept it the same. There were no takebacks,” Hanners said.

According to Hanners, Keck offered the NUHW workers a 9 percent wage increase over the life of the upcoming contract, providing the first wage increase of 3 percent last week, in addition to a $500 bonus.

“We offered a market-competitive increase,” Hanners said.

He also mentioned that the healthcare workers represented by the NUHW also receive a zero premium health care plan that other unions do not, the Anthem-Blue Cross HMO.

Following the one-day strike, the Keck Hospital of USC responded to the strike with a press release, stating that only a fraction of the represented workers participated in picketing and that treatment of patients continued as usual.