by AARON GETTINGER
Nurses at the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) were expected to return to work Wednesday morning after their Friday strike and subsequent lockout, as months of unproductive negotiations for a new contract resulted in the institution’s first work stoppage.
The last contract expired in April. On Aug. 30, nurses voted to allow the National Nurses United Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNOC/NNU) to call a strike with 10 days’ notice, per federal law, after months of collective bargaining did yield a new contract.
On Sept. 10, the NNOC/NNU pulled the trigger, calling for a strike both sides said they wanted to avoid at 7 a.m. on Friday. By Sept. 13, the hospital had begun recruiting replacement workers.
Negotiations continued until the night of Sept. 18, when talks broke down, and the nurses walked off the job on Friday morning. Because of the replacement nurses’ contracts, the UCMC administration said there would be no work for the 2,240 NNOC/NNU-represented workers until Wednesday.
The strike affected the UCMC’s four Hyde Park facilities — the Comer Children’s and Mitchell hospitals, the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine (DCAM), and the Center for Care and Discovery (CCD) — as well as outpatient clinics elsewhere.
All facilities remained open, but UCMC directed ambulances to other area hospitals. The trauma centers were placed on diversion. Certain inpatient units were closed, transfers from other hospitals were limited, elective procedures were rescheduled, and patients were transferred. The administration was reportedly not able to contract as many replacement workers as they had hoped, as NNOC/NNU called for a dozen contemporaneous strikes nationwide.
Picketing nurses said their strike was about staffing and safety — not pay.
“Our biggest thing is pretty much safe staffing for not only the patients, but safety for the nurses as well,” said nurse Patrick Crowe. “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.”
Nurse Mary Strenski said she was striking because of staffing ratios and equipment. 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.
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.”
Comer nurse Karen Taylor mentioned the UCMC’s mandatory on-call requirements, which the NNOC/NNU identified as a major point of contention.
“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.
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 over incentive pay. The administration had proposed keeping that policy the same for existing nurses but ending it for new hires.
Several elected officials attended the union’s Friday rally, including local Illinois Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) and Southeast Side Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), a former Chicago Teachers Union area vice president.
Peters 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.
“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!”
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, adding that 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.”
When over 100 nurses showed up to work on Saturday morning, Kenneth Sparks, an attorney with the Vedder Price law firm, 222 N. LaSalle St., texted NNOC/NNU Midwest Director Marti Smith, saying that the crowd was blocking road access to DCAM, 5758 S. Maryland Ave. He threatened them under the National Labor Relations Act for being present “well past” the end of their strike, for chanting “and other confrontational activity.”
Smith, who had told the crowd that an administration official would come out to address the nurses, encouraged someone to do so. Sparks responded that their actions were unlawful and asked them to cease and desist. Smith then told the workers to do so; no protests were planned during the walkout.
“We regret NNOC/NNU’s attempt to make our patients part of their spectacle,” read a statement the UCMC released. “We have all the experienced licensed nurses we need to care for our patients. We’ve made it clear to our union-represented nurses and the union since they notified us they would be walking out on patients that, due to our contract with replacement nurses, there would be no work for NNOC/NNU members until Wednesday, Sept. 25. We look forward to welcoming our represented nurses back at 7 a.m. Wednesday.”
Further collective bargaining dates are scheduled for September and October.