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By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - University of California hospital workers walked off the job on Wednesday for a 24-hour strike after 18 months of unsuccessful contract talks, forcing the cancellation of elective surgeries and the delay of cancer treatments, university officials said.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, with over 21,000 members, launched the strike at nine University of California campuses and all of the system's medical centers shortly after midnight.
The action, involving hospital staff but not doctors or nurses, follows a two-day walkout in May over staffing shortages that union officials say resulted in its members being "systematically, illegally harassed by their employer," union official Todd Stenhouse said.
Both walkouts follow months of failed labor contract negotiations between the university and the union. The university says the main sticking point is pension reform, while
the union says the remaining disputed deal terms involve safety measures, including service employee staffing.
AFSCME represents 13,000 University of California hospital patient care technical workers, including surgical sterilization technicians and certified nurses aids, and 8,300 service employees, including custodial staff and security guards.
Also joining the walkout is the UC Student-Workers Union Local 2865, representing 12,000 tutors, teaching assistants and other student workers. "We're standing together against retaliation and intimidation and we want to make the U.C. a fair and just workplace," union spokesman Josh Brahinsky said.
Stenhouse said the university system has been operating on "skeletal crews" of patient care technicians and other staff, putting union workers at risk of being injured on the job and patients at risk of inadequate care.
The university, which wants workers to make larger contributions to their pensions, has denied allegations of harassment and urged the union to call off the strike. The union wants higher pension contributions offset by bigger wage increases.
"Striking is not the answer," Vice President of Human Resources Dwaine Duckett said in a letter to the union on Tuesday. "It will only hurt patients and drive us farther apart."
University officials said in a statement that each of its medical centers have had to reschedule surgeries, including cardiac surgeries and kidney transplants, planned for the day of the strike. "Even the threat of an AFSCME strike has already affected patients," the statement said.
A Sacramento Superior Court judge on Tuesday granted the California Public Employment Relations Board an injunction to bar 50 critical care workers from striking.
(Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)