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University of Michigan nurses allege “assault on women,” unfair labor practices at health system

Ann Arbor Journal, 8/2/11

By James David Dickson, A2 Journal
Ann Arbor Journal
Tuesday, August 02, 2011
 
Tuesday afternoon several dozen nurses employed by the University of Michigan Hospital and Health System held a press conference at the Michigan Union. Speaking on behalf of the 4,000 or so nurses in the U-M health system, the nurses alleged unfair labor practices on the university’s part and announced plans to picket if conditions don’t improve.

The nurses have worked without a contract since June 30, when their old agreement with the university expired. On Tuesday the Michigan Nurses Association, which represents the U-M nurses, filed a complaint with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, alleging regressive bargaining, unilateral changes in employee working conditions and negotiating directly with employees, among other offenses. Tuesday’s complaint amended an earlier filing charging that health system negotiators were negotiating in bad faith bargaining.

Meanwhile, at the negotiating table, U-M is reportedly requesting that nurses make greater health insurance contributions. The nurses view the proposal as a pay cut.

Katie Oppenheim, president of the U-M Professional Nurse Council, said that given the amount of mothers and caregivers the measure would affect, the university’s position amounted to an “assault on women.” She noted the irony of U-M opening a women’s hospital in November at a time it’s asking so many female employees to work for less.

Almost 90 minutes after the press conference ended, a staffer in the U-M health system press office sent out a note on the $1.8 million, “museum-quality” art collection the hospital would receive — all funded with private donations, to be sure, but nonetheless ironic.

The nurses noted that U-M has been helpful on some non-economic negotiating points, such as scheduling.

“But it’s not that way when the topic is money,” Oppenheim noted. If U-M doesn’t change course, it could not only lose experience nurses, Oppenheim and her colleagues argued, but it could deter talented applicants from choosing Michigan. If that happens, the argument goes, the quality of nursing at the health system will drop and eventually patients will feel the effects.

It can take a decade of experience and mentoring for a nurse to be able to handle the most critical-care patients the hospital handles, explained Elizabeth Cheslak, a nurse in the Birth Center. Sarah Burns, six months from a quarter century of service to the U-M health system, and an intensive care nurse, agreed. “It takes a long time for that voice in your head to develop,” Burns added.

Keri Boker, a critical care nurse, said she’d probably look for another job if management’s proposals go through. Boker said that the prestige of working for U-M is enough to make her look past paying upwards of $600 every year just to park at her own job.

But parking fees and higher costs and lower benefits is asking too much, especially when the health system just announced its 15th consecutive year of profitability, Boker said.

"I have a friend who teaches in Willow Run who just took a 20 percent pay cut," Boker added. "That, I can understand, but not this."

After spending 16 years working for Huron Valley Ambulance, Boker moved over to nursing at U-M for the chance to work with the brightest minds and best technology in medicine.

“I’m the one who holds your loved one’s hand, who makes sure their last moments are peaceful, who ensures they’re dying with dignity,” Boker said.

That part of it, the work she and her colleagues do for patients, won’t change, ever, said Boker. What might change is where they do their nursing work. St. Joseph Mercy is literally right down the road. The Henry Ford Health System is nearby. And a great many of the 4,000 nurses U-M employs commute to Ann Arbor from other communities.

“We have nurses who live in Flint, Toledo, Windsor, even Marquette,” said Oppenheim. “If things go the way management wants, some of those nurses may choose to get jobs closer to home,” taking them away from the system that trained them and the patients the hospital serves. Nurses are in demand right now.

Negotiations resume Wednesday morning, Oppenheim said, and the nurses are hopeful that a fair deal, perhaps including a raise, and ideally without harsh give-backs, can be achieved. If not, the nurses will continue to work without a contract and continue wearing blood-red scrubs and buttons at work.

If none of that works, the nurses will hold an informational picket on Sat. Aug. 13, from noon to 1 p.m., outside the University of Michigan Hospital.

The University of Michigan responded in a statement on Tuesday night, noting that the nurses union chose to suspend talks on July 9.

On Wednesday, August 3 a team from the University of Michigan Health System will return to the negotiation table with representatives from the U-M Professional Nurses Council/Michigan Nurses Association (UMPNC/MNA). The labor contract negotiations, which began in April, have been suspended since July 9 at the request of the union.

Said the university's statement, in part :
 
"The Health System negotiating team looks forward to returning to the table and engaging with the union bargaining team in an effort to reach an agreement on a successor contract to the one that expired on June 30, 2011. Throughout negotiations, operations have continued as normal and the parties continue to operate according to the terms set forth in the expired agreement.

In the negotiations, the University has an overall interest in reaching a new agreement that includes market- and cost-competitive provisions, which will preserve the organization’s success in recruiting and retaining a highly talented nursing workforce. Discussions at the bargaining table have been constructive...

"We are proud of the quality nursing staff that are a great part of our history and ongoing commitment to safe and effective care...

We prefer to not bargain in the media..."

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