Labor actions among physicians intensify in California

Citing a desire for the best possible patient care and strong worker protections, physicians in California have been involved in several labor actions this year.

While labor actions during the pandemic have more often involved nurses and other healthcare professionals, physicians are increasingly involved in union activities. The labor actions among California physicians include votes to unionize as well as plans to vote on authorizing a strike.

For example, resident and fellow physicians at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles voted to unionize with the Committee of Interns and Residents.

The vote came after a campaign focused on a desire for living wages and representation at their workplace, the union said in a May 5 news release shared with Becker's.

"Every day, my peers and I risk our lives to serve our community and ensure that our patients are getting the best quality care we can provide," Eduardo Fernandez, MD, a fellow in hematology and medical oncology, said in the release. "With a seat at the table, we will advocate for the support that residents and patients alike deserve."

Another unionization vote occurred by resident and fellow physicians at Palo Alto, Calif.-based Stanford Health Care, who also voted in favor of representation by the Committee of Interns and Residents.

That vote came after resident physicians led a protest in December 2020 against Stanford's COVID-19 vaccination plan that excluded house staff from the initial round of shots. The health system immediately revised the plan to prioritize resident physicians.

"Our doctors are united by our desire to provide the best possible patient care and strong worker protections," Ben Solomon, MD, a pediatric resident physician, said in a May 3 union news release. "One thing the pandemic has made abundantly clear, in addition to the widespread equity issues in our healthcare system, is that our needs as physicians cannot be separated from those of our patients."

And most recently, Committee of Interns and Residents physician members at three Los Angeles County healthcare facilities plan to vote on authorizing a strike, according to a May 11 union news release.

The resident physicians and fellows work at LAC+USC Medical Center, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and Martin Luther King Jr. Outpatient Center. Voting is scheduled to begin May 16 and run through May 31.

Physicians "are voting to authorize [a] strike on the grounds that throughout a months-long bargaining process, the county has failed to make movement on key union proposals affecting the physicians and their families or simply rejected them outright, repeatedly canceled scheduled bargaining sessions, and otherwise engaged in bad faith bargaining conduct," the Committee of Interns and Residents said in the release.

If the more than 1,300 resident physicians and fellows ultimately strike, they would be the first in their union to do so in more than 30 years, according to the Committee of Interns and Residents.

Hospital, county response

Officials at USC and Stanford have responded to the unionization votes by expressing respect for the decision and a commitment to negotiations.

Stanford does not plan to challenge the results, the health system said in a statement shared with Becker's on May 3.

"As we begin the collective bargaining process, our goal remains unchanged: providing our residents and fellows with a world-class training experience," Stanford said. "We will bring this same focus to negotiations as we strive to support their development as physician leaders."

In a statement shared with Becker's, USC said: "We support the rights of our employees to choose whether they want to join a union. We appreciate the residents' decision and greatly value their partnership in delivering quality healthcare to patients across Los Angeles County."

The Committee of Interns and Residents is a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union. The union represents more than 20,000 resident physicians and fellows in the U.S, including peers of USC Keck School of Medicine physicians at Los Angeles County healthcare facilities, such as LAC+USC Medical Center.

Regarding the planned vote on strike authorization by union members, Los Angeles County emphasized a committment to negotiations and that a strike authorization vote does not mean a strike will occur. 

"Negotiations are ongoing and the county remains hopeful of reaching a fair and fiscally responsible contract, as the [county] CEO mentioned during the public hearing on the county budget [May 11]," the statement said. "The pending authorization vote by the Committee of Interns and Residents is not a strike and services to the public are continuing without interruption."

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