Nurses begin strike at the University of Chicago Medical Center

Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) rallies the crowd of nurses gatherered in front of the University of Chicago’s Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

By AARON GETTINGER
Staff writer

University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) nurses went on strike on schedule Friday at 7 a.m., picketing outside the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine as the hospital curtailed services.

The National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNOC/NNU) union organized a rally at noon in support; organizers said a thousand of the 2,240 unionized workforce attended.

“This is the biggest general membership meeting we’ve had,” quipped Cindy Loudin, an organizer for NNU and a member of the bargaining team, at the Friday rally. “We’re just sending a message here. This is a mandate: we’re going to go back to the table with the strength of all of you — how many of you? Over a thousand here.”

“They have not been listening, not for years,” she continued. “Did they hear us when you asked for a nurse at 3 a.m. because your patients needed their pain medications? Did they hear us?”

The strikers answered, “No!”

“Did they hear us when we only got a meal break 50% of the time?” Loudin asked, and the crowd answered, “No!” Loudin asked whether the administration heard nurses when they said the time and attendance policy made them work sick, and the crowd said they did not.

“But I think they’re listening now!” Loudin said. “I think we ought to send a message, just in case they’re not: We’re ready to strike and strike again.”

Hundreds of strikers picketed from 7 a.m.; organizers said they would stagger the pickets’ shifts throughout the strike, which is scheduled to end at 7 a.m. on Saturday.

UCMC officials, however, plan to lock the unionized nurses out of work until Wednesday, Sept. 25, saying that the replacement nurses’ contracts had to last five days in order to get them to staff the hospital during the strike.

In a video message posted online just before the strike, UCMC President Sharon O’Keefe said the administration heard the union’s concerns about staffing and proposed hiring 30 new workers.

“The union indicated the proposal to be workable,” she said, but talks still broke down late Wednesday over incentive pay. The administration had proposed keeping that policy the same for existing nurses but ending it for new hires.

“The next five days will test all of us individually and collectively,” O’Keefe said, urging workers to be patient and supportive of the contracted replacement nurses. “We are in a position to withstand a strike because of your dedication, expertise and commitment to our patients.”

O’Keefe said the strike and expected lockout will pass quickly, with closed nursing units reopened and scaled back services being resumed smoothly.

Hundreds of nurses fill the courtyard outside the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

“Importantly, we will welcome our nursing colleagues back to work. We recognize the extraordinary contributions they make to our clinical teams and the vital support they provide to our patients,” she said. “We will all have experienced the strike but remain without a contract. We will fully reactivate the Medical Center and return to the bargaining table with the same interest in achieving and fair and equitable contract.”

Several elected officials attended the noon rally, including local Illinois Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th), who attended previous protests at the UCMC, and Southeast Side Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), a former Chicago Teachers Union area vice president.

Peters recalled his mother’s death at the UCMC, saying a nurse, not the administration, had been at her side.

“You do the work. You’re there. We have to stand with you because you stood with us,” he said.

He invoked Salvador Allende, the Marxist Chilean president who died amid a 1973 CIA-backed coup that ushered in Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and an economy instituted by the “Chicago Boys,” a group of libertarian, free-market economists who were associated with the University of Chicago.

“This is his great revenge,” Peters said before leading a call-and-response chant of “strike wave” and pumping his arms in the air, yelling, “Hell, yeah, mother***ckers!”

Garza, daughter of the late United Steelworkers activist Edward Sadlowski, was similarly ebullient. “Sweet Mother of God, it’s a sea of red!” she cried out. “The hospital’s listening now, aren’t they?”

“The only thing we’ve got is to withhold our labor. You make this hospital money. You make the patients better — not the people sitting in the office,” she said, before leading the crowd in a chant of “Shame!”

“Shame on them! Shame on them for not listening to you when you tried to ask, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem. Can we solve it?’” she said. “They said no. Well now we say f*ck off!”

Security was tightened around the UCMC campus on Thursday, with barriers to the east against the U. of C.’s academic center. All entrances to the Center for Care and Discovery, 5700 S. Maryland Ave., had been blocked except one, where security was stringently checking identification before allowing entry.

Just after the strike began, nurse Patrick Crowe noted that 98.6% of the nurses who voted gave authorization for their bargaining team to call a strike; he said he supposed they all would participate. (A union spokesman said last month that turnout in the authorization election was around 70% of 75% of the over 2,200 represented nurses at the UCMC.)

Picketers made it clear that the strike was not about pay; a UCMC spokesperson said in a statement that union nurses there are the highest paid in Illinois.

“Our biggest thing is pretty much safe staffing for not only the patients, but safety for the nurses as well,” Crowe said. “Ever since the hospital became a trauma center this year, there are no gates. Anybody can come in and come out as they want. Security guards here don’t have any actual weapons; you have to call the University of Chicago Police Department for anybody to come here to take anything.”

(The Herald’s weekly police blotter typically includes at least one incident that requires police officers at the UCMC, commonly trespassing, assault and battery.)

“We’ve been threatened by patients, threatened by patients’ families and then security comes up and says, ‘What do you want us to do about it?’” Crowe continued. He said he hopes the strike “sets a precedent” for nurses across Chicagoland and the nation.

Mary Strenski said she was striking because of staffing ratios and equipment.

“I’ve been here 30 years. Honestly, we have never gotten to this point,” she said. “They open a trauma center; they didn’t hire more nurses.”

She said the UCMC emergency room is overwhelmed, with patients experiencing long wait times.

“I had a patient come in the other day — I was admitting his child — he was asking me questions, and he said, ‘Oh, I sat in the ER for two days before they sent me home,’” Strenski said. “They treated him in the ER, basically, his injuries and stuff … He was supposed to be admitted, but there were no beds! There were no nurses to take the patients!”

Strenski questioned whom the administration expected would care for the influx of new trauma center patients if they hired new workers; it was announced that 18 new surgeons and specialists had been hired to staff the adult trauma center before it opened last year.

“I think they didn’t think there were going to be that many patients! Honestly, I don’t know what the hospital’s thought process is,” Strenski said.

Outdated equipment is also a big concern. “There are days when we have to fight: units are hiding pumps to take care of the patients, to infuse critical meds,” Strenski said. “It’s like we don’t have it.” She said she raised concerns to the administration about this and was told to have her unit-based committee (UBC) take care of it.

“I was on the original UBC 30 years ago; we were still fighting for things then,” she said. “Things have not changed.”

Nurse Charles Osarobo also said nurses have complained about staffing to the administration to no effect and reiterated the bargaining team’s complaints about nurses’ on-call requirements at UCMC.

“We have filled out a lot of inadequate staffing papers, and nothing has been done about it,” he said. “I have filed the papers myself, because I have been the child nurse on the floor, and then nothing has been done. All they tell you is, ‘Oh, we are going to make a call and see if anybody wants to come in.’ You know nobody is going to come in! They know that!”

“We want adequate staffing for us and the patients,” he said. “Without adequate staffing, you can only by yourself do so much — and you get tired, too! You get worn out. And then who suffers? The patient.”

“Not the management! Not Debi!” Osarobo continued, referring to Chief Nursing Officer Debra Albert. “She hasn’t done any bedside care for how many years? If she thinks it’s that easy, let her leave her office and come out, walk on the floor for one week, and let’s see if she’s still singing the same song.”

Comer Children’s Hospital nurse Karen Taylor said staffing there is tight, too.

“The requirements that we have to have to have on call because of the trauma center — it impacts the pediatric department, because we have to take the older trauma patients now, and we need to be staffed appropriately to do that,” she said.

Taylor said things have gotten worse since the trauma center opened: “We’ve always been busy, but I think that impacted us more.”

She also mentioned the UCMC’s mandatory on-call requirements. “If you work a 12-hour shift, you have to stay over, which you don’t know how long that’s going to be,” she said. “If you have a required shift the next day, you have to come back in.” And the working requirements have gotten in the way of her responsibilities to her family.

Kim Reed brought her daughter to the noontime rally. “The irregularity of not knowing when I’m supposed to go to work — how am I supposed to organize childcare at home for my kid?” she asked.

Reed said she thinks the administration is “trying to make everything as difficult as possible for us.”

“I just think the difficulty finding an agreement between the University and the hospital, they’re not going to make things easy on us,” she said. “Disrupting family life at home I’m sure isn’t one of the things they’re trying to avoid.

“We just want to see safe staffing. We want the best for our patients, so we’re willing to make sacrifices and adjust to home life because of that.”

a.gettinger@hpherald.com