Medical Center sounds alarm over 2nd strike as nurses return to work

The Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine, 5758 S. Maryland Ave., had returned to business as usual at 7 o’clock Wednesday morning after a University of Chicago’s Medical Center lockout of union nurses ended. (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Staff writer

Nurses returned to work at 7 a.m. Wednesday after a strike and subsequent lockout at the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC), but contract is nowhere in sight. The union and the hospital administration cancelled collective bargaining sessions scheduled for this week, and Chief Nursing Officer Debra Albert has sounded the alarm about a potential second strike.

“When we return to negotiations, we will pick up where we left off before the strike interrupted our discussions. None of the issues were resolved during the strike,” Albert wrote late on Tuesday.

She said that the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNOC/NNU) union leadership “are openly threatening to call on you to walk out on your patients a second time,” calling it “another chapter from their national agenda playbook.” (The UCMC strike coincided with a dozen other industrial actions nationwide.)

“NNOC/NNU’s behavior up to this point has made clear that their primary interest is in striking rather than in reaching a deal,” Albert wrote, adding that the union has the power to order a second strike without a members’ vote.

NNOC/NNU Midwest Director Marti Smith said management conveyed a lack of concern about patient care in negotiations. On Sept. 18, the UCMC administration proposed a reduced patient assignment for charge nurses on adult surgical units, a reconfiguration of patient care support nurses to cover all shifts and units and 30 new full-time patient care positions.

Smith said over 200 nurses took part in a call that night, when the negotiations broke down. The union bargaining team presented the administration’s proposals and asked how they wanted to proceed. She said that hundreds of nurses urged them to call the strike.

“For us, what that was was that we needed to show management that it isn’t just a bunch of wild-eyed ideologues at the table: that we actually do represent the nurses, that our ideas are not fringe, that this is the priority of the nurses,” Smith said. “I don’t think they truly understood that.”

“Our goal is to reach an agreement, but we they won’t hear us, we have to shout loud enough for them to hear us. And that’s what this was. Now they understand, hopefully, that this is a priority and that they need to address it. And if they don’t, then,” Smith said, trailing off.

Prompted, she continued, “Then I don’t know. We’ll figure it out.”

While acknowledging the logistical and financial difficulties that the strike and lockout incurred, Brigit Newton said she and other nurses were ready to strike again: “If we have to, we will.” She said that other nurses are in good spirits and confident.

“We definitely feel for the patients and people who are on the inside who are not part of the union — our associates, our secretarial staff, pharmacy, lab,” she added. “They’ve all been greatly affected, too.”

Bargaining is set to resume on Sept. 30.

On an institutional level, spokeswoman Ashley Heher said the UCMC adult and children’s emergency departments are no longer on ambulance bypass and that the trauma center reopened. Transfer patients are being accepted again, and some transferred patients will return.

“We’re grateful to our clinical teams who stayed behind during this walkout, our relief workers who came to patients’ bedsides and the greater Chicago medical community for helping us and our patients,” said Chief Medical Officer Stephen Weber in a statement. “We are particularly proud of our care teams and how they embraced our patients to ensure they received outstanding care.”