Fighting for Better Care: Nurses Demonstrate Union Power at the University of Chicago Medical Center

 /  Jan. 30, 2015, 4:43 p.m.


Amidst national concerns surrounding the fall of the union, the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) nurses’ bargaining efforts reveal why robust union protections remain crucial for American workers

On January 29, nurses at the University of Chicago Medical Center voted in favor of  a strike in an expression of their rising frustrations at stalled negotiation processes between the National Nurses Union (NNU), which represents the UCMC nurses, and hospital administrators.

The key issues of contention are not related to monetary compensation or benefits: UCMC nurses are feeling the pinch of chronic understaffing, which forces nurses to work alternating day and night shifts, and take hurried breaks. The UCMC is trying to increase mandatory rotating shifts, forcing nurses on the day shift to work night shifts and vice versa. As it now stands, nurses can be called in on a rotating shift twice in a six-week period. The NNU is seeking an end to rotating shifts altogether. Negotiations came to a halt last October and the nurses have been working under expired contracts ever since. The nurses’ strike vote also comes on the heels of the successful settlement of a similar dispute at the University of Illinois Hospital.

UCMC representatives frame union action as counterproductive to professional negotiation. The hospital has employed scaremongering tactics—including ‘reminders’ that the nurses can and would be replaced if they went on strike—in addition to financial threats of potential salary loses. "This could cost our NNU-represented nurses $1,500 to $2,000 a week in lost earnings," Debi Albert claims in the video online, she continues by urging nursing staff to stand firm against what the UCMC is representing as the threat of union coercion.

The UCMC’s messaging follows the nationwide ‘Right to Work’ narratives. States with right-to-work laws attempt to abolish or dramatically reduce dues payments that public sector workers are mandated to make under national labor laws. These laws severely limit union power by making it very difficult for them to remain financially viable, effectively curtailing their capacity to bargain collectively. A prominent rhetorical tactic of right-to-work campaigns is greater worker freedom—messaging that is strongly echoed in the UCMC’s PR campaign. On the national stage, right-to-work advocates espouse commitments to economic recovery and regional competitiveness; at home, the UCMC reiterates their commitment to good-faith negotiation and above all, patient care. The intent of this messaging is the same: we care, the union doesn’t.

In both cases, that message is unfounded. Nationally, there is little empirical evidence supporting claims that right-to-work laws improve economic outcomes. Locally, the suggestion that nurses are less than dedicated to their patients because they voted to strike blatantly ignores the precarious living and working conditions of caregivers, which also affects the care that patients receive in turn. To bracket away a commitment to patient-care without committing to creating a healthy, democratic environment for it to occur in is, at best, short-sighted.

Dawn Peckler—an operating room nurse and the chair of the Professional Practice Council for Nurses at the UCMC—reiterated nurses’ commitments to their patients, critiquing the UCMC’s corporate hospital model in an interview: “We were told the UCMC would like to evaluate nurses based on the nurses’ productivity. But how do they judge productivity? This is not a factory. Each individual patient has a unique situation. Productivity is a very assembly-line thought process. You can’t say you’re all about health care and about patients when you are driven by the business model.”

Research demonstrates that rotating shifts compromise patient safety. Through rotating shifts, nurses are often placed in new environments on short notice and are therefore unable to function at their best capacity, something that NNU is cognizant of and is battling against. As Talisa Hardin, astaff nurse and a chief nurse representative with the NNU, put it, “Nurses are trained to recognize cues about patients’ health, which enables them to intervene in life-threatening situations and save lives. But when nurses are allocated less time per patient, this becomes more difficult and more sentinel events occur.” For the UCMC, cutting back on staffing is deemed necessary to remain competitive even though it is known to endanger patients’ lives. “I’m interested in doing what’s best for my patient at all times. That’s why we come to work, that’s why we do what we do,” emphasized Talisa, “They used to have physicians on rotating shifts as well, which they’ve transitioned away from after recognizing that as unsafe. But they’ve refused to recognize that it’s the same for nurses.”

In order to understand the importance of National Nurses United’s efforts, it is important to understand the demographic makeup of the nursing profession: in the United States, ninety-one percent of nurses are women, and the majority are under 40. The undervaluation of the work of the nurses at the UCMC should also be read in the context of wider gender-based inequalities in compensation, and safety and quality of working conditions. While the UCMC is not solely implicated in this phenomenon, offering solidarity to the NNU nurses represents an opportunity to affirm the crucial importance of actualizing professional spaces for over 2 million women countrywide.

Finally, it is worth asking where the revenue collected by the hospital is really going. Jan Rodolfo, Midwest director of NNU speaking at a Campus Workers’ Speak-Out yesterday, noted that much of it is being spent underwriting loans undertaken by the University of Chicago, or goes into the construction of new buildings by the University. The NNU nurses decision to strike if negotiations with the UCMC continue to deteriorate serves as a reminder that we must be suspicious of narratives that denounce unions in favour of empty rhetoric, and that as members of the campus community, we must stand in solidarity with the nurses whose work is essential to delivering the highest quality of life-saving services.

What is illustrative about NNU nurses at the UCMC is that unions retain their ability to be democratic and empowering spaces. Collective bargaining at the UCMC affords us a rare opportunity to witness the complex dynamics of collective labor in the context of increasingly individualized workspaces managed by big capitalist interests which, in the case of the UCMC at present, address neither worker nor patient welfare.

Shiro Wachira and Tanima Sharma