For the past two months, University of Michigan nurses and their union representatives have been engaged in contract negotiations with Michigan Medicine. As part of a public pressure campaign, the Michigan Nurses Association – University of Michigan Professional Nurses Council (MNA-UMPNC) held several rallies, including at meetings of the University of Michigan Board of Regents, where nurses have made public comments, describing their working conditions and their demands for a better and fairer contract. The nurses were joined by the University of Michigan Lecturers’ Employees Organization, which is also fighting for a better contract, and supporters from Comrades in Coffee, Detroit Will Breathe and Left Voice. Although the contract expired on June 30, no agreement has yet been reached.
The nurses’ demands are clear. They want to be able to do their job safely and efficiently and be compensated for it. They want working conditions that will allow them to provide the level of care that patients deserve. A nurse, who has worked at the hospital since 1984, told Left Voice, “I was proud to be a UM nurse because you could provide the care that patients deserve. Now he runs to put out fires.
This trend is becoming the norm in hospitals and healthcare industries. These institutions, supposed to provide an essential service to people, are run like businesses. While some hospitals have been run as businesses since the turn of the 20th century, the last 30 years have seen a substantial shift towards large-scale, multi-hospital systems and, although often defined as “not-for-profit”, talks with investors and billion dollars in acquisitions and mergers are becoming more and more frequent. Funding larger speculative investments in hospitals prioritizes profit, relegating any ethical working conditions or standards of care to an afterthought rather than a mandate. The healthcare industry has become nothing less than a means of extracting wealth from the sick and injured.
As soon as they entered the building last May, the nurses were greeted with a show of force: strict security procedures and a strong police presence. The group was asked to enter a single file line to be checked by a metal detector and bag check. This greeting unequivocally showed the limits of the “hero” rhetoric so often heard by hospital executives and politicians during the pandemic. Indeed, far from creating an “academic atmosphere,” these measures have served to alienate elected regents from public employees and students, while reminding them that their power is backed by the armed state.
At the regents’ meeting, MNA nurses spoke of the risks of overwork as a crisis for patients and nurses. A nurse said there was no shortage of nurses, but “a shortage of nurses willing to work under these conditions”. A recently hired nurse mentioned seeing a concerted effort to get experienced nurses out. Conditions at the hospital have been dire since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Although there is more PPE available, staff have lost out to the wave of layoffs in July 2020, burnout, to higher paying jobs as travel nurses and high Covid morbidity. the rates have not been replaced. Units are short – sometimes as many as 10 nurses short – and there are not enough support staff, leaving nurses to take on every position from pharmacist to transporter. The nurses are tired: “Tired to the core. All nurses across the country, including the University of Michigan,” as one longtime nurse put it. As a result, according to MNA nurses, patient falls have increased dramatically.
This posture stands in stark contrast to the “hero’s story” that essential workers have been encouraged to identify with in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis. Somehow, amid another push and another swing, essential workers advocating for fair pay, overtime incentives and ethical staff ratios are meeting resistance. rude from the hospital. The language of “essential workers” has proven to be nothing more than lip service as the University of Michigan Hospital seeks to inflate its profits by squeezing nurses – and therefore patients.
Some nurses see the changes as a result of Michigan Medicine’s move to a corporate hospital model. The priority given to profit over patients is embodied in their “conciergewhich allows affluent patients to skip the queues and get fast, high-quality care while “normal” patients linger in overcrowded ERs. This change is consistent with capitalism’s push for “innovation” which always results in a more “modern” and “efficient” system that benefits the most important financial interests and does nothing to improve the quality of care or the ‘access. In other words, the institutions provide the bare minimum of care, keeping the working class just well enough to show up for work and perform the essential tasks that keep the system running and the bosses raking in profits.
Nurses are tough – they have shouldered much of the burden during the pandemic. Now they are standing up for themselves and each other demanding safe working conditions, decent pay and to be treated with dignity by the administration. Michigan Medicine so far appears to be stonewalling the nurses — threatening to rewrite the entire contract, refusing to make concessions on hiring practices and offering only a 3% raise despite record inflation. Now that the contract has expired, according to MNA-UMPNC, the administration withholds step pay increases and demands 101 concessions.
After two traumatic, exhausting years, and following a major exodus of nurses from the field, UM nurses are now forced to fight to be able to provide the quality of care that people deserve. One thing is clear, though: Michigan nurses aren’t afraid to strike. They’ve done it before in 1989 and 2018. Now it looks like they may have to do it again if they want the University to hear their voice. Through long and difficult experience, nurses know precisely how essential their work is. They are tired of being exploited and abused by the hospital administration for the sake of maximizing profits. If Michigan nurses want to earn a better contract and the respect they deserve, they’ll have to flex their muscles and strike. Against the knee-jerk reaction that striking nurses are “abandoning their patients,” the truth is that conditions at the hospital are already bad. Strikes are not vacations — they are a way for nurses to fight for better outcomes for themselves and their patients. Hospital administrators need to understand that nurses provide care, not investors.
The nurses’ contract ended on June 30 at midnight, with no agreement in sight. Union leadership called an information picket July 16 at 10 a.m. from Fuller Field Park in Ann Arbor, MI. If you are in the area, join us in solidarity.