As non-emergency surgeries were postponed and fill-in medical technicians were brought in from out of state, thousands of employees walked off the job Tuesday at the UC Davis Medical Center and four other University of California hospitals.
The two-day strike, due to end at 4 a.m. Thursday, was billed by the union for nearly 13,000 nursing assistants, pharmacists, operating room scrubs and other workers as a walkout over medical staffing levels and patient safety.
But University of California officials painted the strike as a contract dispute over wages and benefits - particularly the refusal of the union to agree to increased contributions for employee pensions.
In Sacramento, a few hundred pickets marched along Stockton Boulevard and outside the UC Davis Medical Center, chanting, "What's this about? Patient care!"
"This is a two-day strike because UC is regrettably putting patients needlessly at risk every day," said Todd Stenhouse, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He said the union was demanding protections for staffing levels and limits against contracting out for hospital jobs.
UC officials said the issue is a contract dispute over employees being asked to pay 6.5 percent of the costs of their retirements - up from 5 percent. They say the striking workers also have been offered pay raises of up to 3.5 percent a year over four years.
Stenhouse said 97 percent of union employees voted to support the strike, which also targeted University of California hospitals in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Irvine. He said thousands walked off the job.
But UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein said a majority of union-covered employees actually showed up for work at the UC Davis Medical Center and that as many as half came to work at UCLA.
"Overall we are pleased that many of these professionals crossed the picket lines," she said.
While Klein said UC Davis "operating rooms are open and surgeries are being performed," the medical center postponed some 45 non-emergency surgeries, including cancer procedures, and 500 radiological appointments.
UC officials said the two-day strike is costing the system $20 million, much of that for bringing in medical technicians, including many from out of state, to maintain staffing.
About 450 union employees, including respiratory therapists, poison control specialists and pediatric and neonatal intensive care workers, were barred from striking.
Lana Rasberry of Fairfield said she was startled to see chanting pickets outside the UC Davis Medical Center when she brought in her daughter to have her baby.
"It added a lot of excitement, seeing all of it," Rasberry said. "I'm thinking, 'Oh my gosh, the day she goes in, they're on strike.' "
Rasberry said the delivery room was well-staffed and there were no problems for her daughter.
Carol Robinson, a registered nurse and the medical center's chief of nursing operations, said there was enough staff Tuesday for some employees to go home. "We're very confident we will have very safe patient care," she said.
But Tria Roberson of Calaveras County, who joined family members in an anxious vigil for her niece hospitalized for kidney failure, fumed there was no cafeteria service Tuesday as workers walked off the job. "That's a major inconvenience," she said.
One striking medical employee, Karl Thurmond, who works in the UC Davis radiology unit, charged that working conditions have deteriorated due to staffing shortages. Another, Ruby Reed, who works in the hematology lab, complained of increased stress from added duties.
"It is extremely busy," Reed said. "I love my job and the people I work with. But I want to leave work at the end of the day and not be out cold" with exhaustion.
Pickets at UC Davis carried signs, "No second class workers" and "UC Greed Hurts Our Community."
They were cheered on by Sacramento City Councilman Darrell Fong, a retired Sacramento Police Department captain who touted his union roots as he addressed the crowd with a bullhorn.
"Hey, people are entitled to make a fair living," Fong said. "I'm here to support you."
Keith Dilday, a Sacramento man who drove a friend to the hospital to visit her daughter, a patient, said the strikers were loud but not disruptive. "They're a lively group. I'll say that much," he said.
But Klein, the UC spokeswoman, said patients at other UC hospitals complained of noise from strikers outside with "shrill whistles, drums and megaphones."
"These are ill patients, and it really bothers them," she said.
Call The Bee's Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.