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California Nurses' Strike Threat: Is It Really About Swine Flu?

California nurses have threatened a major walk-out on Oct. 30. Judging by the headlines in the press -- "Nurses Plan Strike Over Swine Flu Conditions at Hospitals," says the L.A. Times -- you'd almost believe that 16,000 nurses' biggest concern is that they might be infected with H1N1.

Score one for the California Nurses Association, which has managed to convince the media that swine flu preparations -- and not salary and health benefits -- are driving the strike. In fact, the union has been calling for a better contact from Catholic Healthcare West, which operates 37 hospitals throughout California.

L.A. hospitals that would lose staff during the one-day strike include California Hospital Medical Center, St. Vincent Medical Center and Glendale Memorial Hospital.

Is the scare over swine flu safety nothing more than good public relations strategy by the nurses' union?

No. There's reason to worry that H1N1 could infect nurses if the necessary precautions aren't taken. California nurse Karen Ann Hays died several months ago after contracting swine flu. "If the hospitals don't do a better job, they become incubators," a nurses' union spokesperson told the L.A. Times.

Hospital officials say the nurses' salary and benefit requirements are "unrealistic" given the state of the economy. But what about nurses' demands for special protective masks? And that infected patients be isolated?

It'll be difficult for hospitals to say they can't afford to take those steps, especially when states such as Nevada are beginning to publish guidelines requiring them to do so.

Perhaps the cleanest way to handle the swine flu prep emergency is to separate it from the contract negotiations. Nurses could demand that hospitals address H1N1 safety as the unique and urgent issue that it is. Labor disputes are inevitable and often endless, but a health crisis should be handled swiftly. 

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