Nurses push back at UCMC

May 11, 2015

Trish Kahle and Dennis Kosuth report on a tentative contract agreement between National Nurses United and the University of Chicago Medical Center.

SOME 1,500 registered nurses at the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC), members of National Nurses United (NNU), came within two days of striking for improved safety standards and patient care practices--but after a bargaining session that ran late into the night on April 27, the union reached a tentative agreement.

Nurses held the line on major bargaining issues and even scored two important wins: the elimination of swing shifts, with permanent shift nurses to be hired over the coming six months to replace the swing shifts, and the hiring of eight new patient care support nurses. The other major patient safety issue--staffing ratios--was not resolved in this round of bargaining, but remains a looming battle for nurses' unions across Illinois and much of the country.

When the union called an April 30 strike date, UCMC announced that it would lock out nurses for four more days after the strike. Administrators claimed this was to ensure patient care, but if they were really interested in this, they would have immediately met the nurses' demands for better working conditions.

University of Chicago Medical Center
University of Chicago Medical Center

When asked for management motivation behind the lockout, Talisa Hardin, a RN who has worked in the Burn Unit at UCMC for the past eight years, said: "I have no idea why UCMC is locking us out for four days. It feels as if it is retaliation, or a punishment for nurses who have decided to stand together and fight for a fair contact."

THAT NURSES, whose daily work and entire training focus them on doing what is best for patients, were willing and prepared to strike is a demonstration of how far away management has gotten from their stated mission of patient-centered care. And the University of Chicago community knew it, too.

When nurses decided they would have to strike for themselves and their patients, they reached out to other hospital and campus unions, including Graduate Students United, plus campus groups including Students for Health Equity, Students Organizing United with Labor and Southside Solidarity Network.

Graduate employees and student activists sprang into action in support of the nurses, organizing teach-ins about what the nurses were fighting for and leafleting students to build solidarity for the strike. "You know how you feel after pulling an all-nighter?" one activist asked a passing student. "Imagine trying to care for a critical care patient when you feel like that. You couldn't."

Additionally, students connected the strike to the ongoing struggles on the campus and the neighborhood--in particular the fight to get UCMC to open an adult trauma center, which the majority-Black South Side is currently without. Trauma patients have died in transit to the next closest trauma center, more than seven miles away on the North Side of the city.

The student/graduate employee/nurses coalition represents the culmination of an ongoing effort by organizers on campus to connect struggles and build power, and we know this wasn't the last round. The university continues to displace Black working-class residents from the neighborhood and deny graduate employees their right to a union, as well as all the speedups and cutbacks the university demanded of nurses.

But the importance of the battle at UCMC went far beyond the Hyde Park-based University of Chicago. The strike would have been the first nurses' strike at a hospital in more than two decades.

Nurses went on strike for the recognition of the Illinois Nurses Association (INA) at the University of Chicago Hospital in 1969. INA nurses struck Cook County Hospital for four days in December of 1972 and for 39 days in 1976. Not far from Chicago, there was a bitter 61-day first contract strike by the INA at St. Joseph Medical center in Joliet, Illinois, in January 1993.

JUST BECAUSE a tentative agreement has been reached, however, doesn't mean the battles over the future of patient care and the nursing profession are over. There have been other battles involving nurses in recent months.

INA represents 1,000 nurses at the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago, who came within hours of striking in October 2014 before achieving a tentative agreement the night before they were set to walk out. Nurses at Cook County Health and Hospital System, represented by National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC)--an affiliate of NNU--are voting this week on whether to strike

NNOC has been in Chicago for just over 10 years, winning a vote to take over representing Cook County nurses from the INA in 2005. In May 2010, UCMC nurses voted to leave the INA and join NNU. NNU also successfully organized the non-union nurses at Jackson Park Hospital in 2012.

NNOC/NNU's success at taking over representation from the INA and organizing unorganized nurses stems from their more aggressive strategy in taking on the health care bosses. Unlike the stated philosophy of the American Nurses Association, which emphasizes partnership with management, NNOC/NNU is not shy about open confrontation and striking hospitals when necessary.

In today's economy, speedups are the norm, and this is no different in health care. When management pushes speedups on nurses by increasing the number of nurses per patient, demanding more overtime and refusing to hire adequate numbers of patient care support nurses who can help nurses care for critical assigned patients, the patients suffer as well.

"We have been going through a lean transformation for the last several years, and the feel in the hospital has been do more with less, work faster and harder, not necessarily safer," Talisa Hardin, a RN at UCMC, said. "The general feel is that profits, not patients, come first."

As a member of the bargaining team, Hardin knows firsthand the issues the bedside RNs are fighting for, as well as how disconnected management is from what things look like for patients and those who care for them. Rather than focusing on making sure nurses had working conditions conducive to providing good patient care, UCMC's current Chief Nurse Officer Debi Albert was hard at work updating UCMC's anti-union website on a daily basis in the run-up to the strike date. Apparently believing it to be an insult, she states that NNU has "called a staggering 115 strikes against hospitals throughout the U.S., more than all other nursing unions combined over the same period."

Albert was less concerned with addressing the issues that led nurses to overwhelmingly vote to strike: rotating shifts, where RNs are forced to work a day shift and then a night shift in the same week, which can lead to increased nursing errors; and changing some charge nurse positions into management jobs, which would reduce the unionized workforce and further distance them from a patient centered focus toward a profit center.

UCMC is good at putting profits ahead of patients and nurses, and it shows in their revenue reports: $1.8 billion in patient revenue each year, with only an embarrassing $16.2 million given back to the community in the form of charity care, amounting to 1.3 percent of revenue. But the nurses' organization and preparation shows that workers can stand up to the bosses--even when they have billions of dollars in the bank.

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