WESTWOOD (CBSLA.com) — Healthcare workers Tuesday began at two-day strike at five of the biggest medical centers in the University of California system.

More than 13,000 workers hit the picket lines outside UCLA, UC Irvine and three other campuses at 4 a.m.

The strike comes after nearly a year of stalled contract negotiations with UC administrators over pensions and staffing levels, which the union says have been reduced to dangerous levels.

“We feel that we are chronically understaffed and that we need additional help ’cause we are the front line workers that take care of our patients every day,” radiation therapist Rueben Gomez said.

“We don’t want to have to be here,” said Scott Hill, a representative of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, the union representing healthcare workers. “We wish that they would come to the table, bargain with us in good faith.”

A judge ruled Monday that 453 laboratory technicians, pharmacists and respiratory therapists must work through the strike with an additional 500 replacement workers helping to fill in at various positions, according to officials.

The UCLA Health System also postponed 25 percent of surgeries scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.

“We are very disappointed, as are the UC officials, that the Union has elected to put patients potentially in the way of their own economic interests,” said Dr. Thomas Rosenthal, UCLA Chief Medical Officer.

UC officials said the cost of insuring public safety during the strike will be $20 million.

Rallies have been planned for noon and 6 p.m. Tuesday.

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