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University of Michigan nurses hold rally to fight for patients’ equal access to health care

Nurses in Michigan and Vermont want their workplaces to help them help patients.

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

University of Michigan nurses have been negotiating a contract for 90 days, and their employer has not moved on several issues they care about. On Saturday, they plan to hold an informational picket in the hope that it moves their employer at the negotiating table.

The contract with the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council (UMPNC) would cover about 6,000 nurses. The nurses’ last collective bargaining agreement expired on June 30, and now, they are looking for a new agreement to keep staffing levels at their current level and offer equal access to health care.

UMPNC members and their supporters will march from Fuller Park and go to the Ann Arbor medical campus on Saturday. In addition to nurses’ union leadership, Ian Robinson, president of the Huron Valley Area Labor Federation and president of Lecturers Employee Organization of the American Federation of Teachers will be there. U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell (D-MI) will also go to the rally in support of nurses.

One of the major issues nurses are striking over is their employers’ refusal to sign an agreement on staffing levels, said Katie Oppenheim, registered nurse, and president of UMPNC. 

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“We’re not asking for more, just for current staffing levels not to be decreased. The employer has said, ‘We promise we will do that,'” Oppenheim said. “As nurses, we know that if it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen. You’ve got to write that down. And they will not write it down, nor are they willing to inform the public in a transparent way exactly what our staffing levels are. We will continue to work on that issue.”

“As nurses, we know that if it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen.”

Nurses also take issue with Michigan Medicine’s concierge medical care pilot, called the Victors Care concierge medicine program. The primary care program has an annual membership fee that allows patients to pay for more time with their doctor and “enhanced access,” according to MLive.com. The “founding” memberships cost $2,700 a year for those who signed up before June 30 and will eventually rise to $3,600 each year once founding memberships expire.

“You pay a premium on an annual basis that we cannot afford as nurses, and we believe everyone should have access to quality health care, regardless of their income,” Oppenheim said. “We have had the backing of our trainees. Faculty have been around this issue of Concierge Care. For so many reasons, it’s not the right thing to do, anywhere, but especially in a public facility.”

Desiree Conyers, a registered nurse, said that access to primary care has been an issue for years and that the university should focus on increasing access for all patients first.

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“I don’t know what is on their agenda, but patients have lost access from the physicians they pull from primary care,” Conyers said. “So, patients have to find new physicians. So, I don’t know what is on their agenda but pulling doctors away from clinics that already are short-staffed — you would think they would try to beef up general access and access to primary care first.”

Conyers added that many nurses are concerned about retirement benefits.

“For a lot of nurses, that is the biggest draw for why they come to the university,” Conyers said. “There are nurses who drive 60 miles just to come to work at the university and it’s because of the retirement. Right now, we get for every 5 percent we put in the university puts in 10 percent and they want to cut back on that.”

“There are nurses who drive 60 miles just to come to work at the university and it’s because of the retirement.”

Oppenheim said the union is working on getting the right to appoint people or hold elections to get its members on University of Michigan committees that influence how nurses take care of patients and other work roles. She said management will not move on that issue either.

When asked about the possibility of a work stoppage, Oppenheim said, “We’re very much focused on this informational picket. We have not talked about work stoppage in any way at this point. We’re very focused on this and hope this moves the employer while all of our members continue to work and take care of patients just like they do every day.”

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Other nurses in Michigan are seriously considering going on strike, however. Nurses at McLaren Lapeer Region hospital have been bargaining for 15 months, much longer than University of Michigan nurses. This week, they voted to authorize a strike. As is the case for University of Michigan nurses, McLaren Lapeer Region hospital are concerned about staffing. The nurses have been asking for a higher nurse-to-patient ratio, according to Michigan Radio. The strike is still one of the last option nurses will consider to get the hospital to move in negotiations, however.

University of Vermont Medical Centre’s 1,800 unionized nurses are already at that last resort, and went on strike beginning at 7 a.m. on Thursday. The strike ends on Saturday. The University of Vermont had 600 replacement nurses flown in for the duration of the strike, according to Burlington Free Press. Nurses want higher salaries and the union asked for a 24 percent increase in salaries over the course of three years. The nurses union eventually lowered their demands to a 22 percent raise but the counter-offer was rejected. The union has argued that without higher wages, it will continue to be difficult to keep and recruit nurses. It said there is “a crisis of understaffing,” according to the Associated Press.

Rebecca Kolins Givan, associate professor of labor studies and employment relations in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University, said nurses have fought hard to unionize and fight for better working conditions in an “extremely challenging” environment. The ability to form a union in the first place is already a huge struggle for many health care workers.

“Any time there is an organizing drive, especially in a hospital setting or health care setting by nurses, there is a huge amount of money put into trying to stopping the union drive from succeeding,” she said. “Employers in the health care industry in particular are very, very anti-union and will put almost limitless resources into stopping the union from coming in. They don’t want workers in union activity. They are much more happy with a top-down culture than having frontline healthcare workers having any kind of voice or input into how to improve patient care or what they key issues are facing communities.”

Kolins Givan said health care has become “extremely profit-driven, even among the nominal nonprofit providers.”

“Unionized workforces tend to negotiate for better staffing levels, safer workplaces –which might involve resources being put into it — and affordable healthcare for the workers,” she said. “When you’re a health care worker, there is some irony when your health care is not affordable. That happens all the time in nonunion workplaces. They basically feel that any amount they could put into stopping the workers unionizing will still be a good investment compared to the workers unionizing successfully.”