University of Michigan nurses set to vote on strike authorization

‘The level of moral trauma our nurses are experiencing is immense,’ union president says

By: - August 19, 2022 1:57 pm

University of Michigan Medical Center | Laina G. Stebbins

Updated 3:36 p.m., 8/19/22 with comments from the University of Michigan

About 6,200 nurses at the University of Michigan’s hospital in Ann Arbor will vote later this month on whether or not to authorize a strike over what union leaders and workers describe as “unfair labor practices” that are leaving nurses exhausted, burnt out and departing their jobs altogether. 

Members of the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council (UMPNC), a subset of the Michigan Nurses Association (MNA), will vote on the strike authorization from Aug. 27 through Sept. 2, union officials announced Friday. 

If a majority of the UMPNC members vote to approve the strike, that means their elected bargaining team of fellow nurses will have the power to call a labor strike at Michigan Medicine. If that occurred, union leaders would give 10 days’ notice to the university.

“We take any potential work stoppage very seriously and it’s unfortunate that we’ve been pushed to this point,” UMPNC President Renee Curtis, who has worked as an emergency department nurse at Michigan Medicine for about two decades, said in a prepared statement. “We cannot stand by, though, while the university continues to violate our rights and break the law. We owe it to our patients and communities to stand up for ourselves and that’s why we’re holding this work stoppage vote.”

The approximate 6,200 registered nurses represented by UMPNC have been working without a contract since it expired on June 30. Union leaders said the University of Michigan administration is illegally failing to address chronic understaffing, among other issues, in its ongoing negotiations with the union. The University of Michigan Board of Regents holds the contract with UMPNC.

Friday’s announcement about the strike vote comes days after the MNA on Monday filed a lawsuit against the University of Michigan in an effort to force the school to bargain over workload ratios. The MNA also filed on Monday an unfair labor practice charge against the University of Michigan with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. The unfair labor practice charge alleges that the university is violating the Public Employment Relations Act, which designates workload and safety as mandatory subjects of bargaining.

Between the pandemic and the ongoing short staffing of our health system, the level of moral trauma our nurses are experiencing is immense. We see no end in sight. We are not having a nursing shortage; we have a shortage of nurses willing to work in these conditions.

– University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council President Renee Curtis

University of Michigan Health, the clinical division of Michigan Medicine, said in a statement provided to the Advance on Friday that it “has been engaged in collective bargaining with MNA/UMPNC since March with the shared goal to ensure our organization remains a world-class work and care environment and a destination for nursing excellence.

“To date, we have made tremendous progress together, and we are disappointed that the U-M Professional Nurses Council plans to hold a vote on a work stoppage rather than working to achieve a positive result for our nurses at the bargaining table,” the statement continued. “Lawsuits and strikes delay our progress and are counterproductive to our ultimate goal of achieving a fair contract for our nurses.”

University of Michigan Health went on to say that it “makes staffing determinations with patient safety at the forefront of its decisions, and this has produced outstanding safety results.”

The university said in its statement that its current contract offer to the UMPNC includes a 6% raise for nurses in the first year and a 5% raise per year for the following three years. The offer also includes “safely eliminating mandatory overtime,” according to the statement.

UPMNC “has refused to take this contract offer to its members for a vote or to rejoin us at the bargaining table to finalize our agreement. We remain ready to resume discussions at any time,” the statement said.

An MNA spokesperson said negotiations are scheduled to continue on Tuesday, and the spokesperson also noted that union leaders and the university have been in regular negotiations since March.

On Thursday night, University of Michigan nurses held a town hall in Ann Arbor to share their work experiences with the community. During the event, which was livestreamed, nurses painted a picture of workers who are deeply demoralized and fatigued – and patients who are suffering because of that.

Nurses spoke of feeling defeated in the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with workers saying they routinely put their lives on the line and now feel as though the University of Michigan has turned its back on them.

“My employer up until a year ago called us heroes for our efforts — offering praise, signs for our yards, free waters and granola bars, even the occasional pizza party,” Adam Paulsen, a pediatric intensive care unit nurse at Michigan Medicine, said during the town hall. “And then I saw a massive culture shift in nursing and our employer. Nurses were discovering their worth…Michigan Medicine was finding they had to compete for wages in a national and local market. 

“But Michigan Medicine keeps relying on this myth that everyone in the area wants to work for them and that our reputation alone is enough to recruit nurses,” Paulson continued. 

At a University of Michigan Board of Regents meeting on June 16, 2022, Michigan Medicine nurses said they face a “staffing crisis.” | Photo courtesy of the Michigan Nurses Association

That, nurses said, is not working, and Curtis said the chronic understaffing that began to soar during the pandemic is now at levels the union president said she’s never before seen during her decades at the hospital.

The understaffing at the hospital has translated to hundreds of nurses leaving the Ann Arbor facility and an “extremely high” turnover rate — 16% — for new graduates working at the hospital over the past year, the union president said.

“Between the pandemic and the ongoing short staffing of our health system, the level of moral trauma our nurses are experiencing is immense,” Curtis said at Thursday’s town hall. “We see no end in sight. We are not having a nursing shortage; we have a shortage of nurses willing to work in these conditions.”

Nurses have continued to document what they describe as unsafe working conditions to the administration. The MNA noted in a Tuesday press release that Michigan Medicine nurses have filed about 1,090 forms with management that report concerns about unsafe staffing, among other patient care issues, this year. That compares to 1,000 in all of 2021.

More than 4,000 UMPNC nurses have signed a petition calling for an end to understaffing, no more “unsafe forced overtime” and competitive wages that can recruit and retain nurses and outpace inflation.

The chronic understaffing has translated to nurses unable to care for the number of patients assigned to them, Paulsen said. 

“Our retention is declining; our nurses are stressed and burned out and overworked, forced to work overtime shifts, some lasting 16 hours,” Paulsen said. 

“Lately, we’re seeing more bed sores,” he continued. “Can you imagine at a world-class hospital we’re seeing bed sores in children because our hospital isn’t providing enough staff to help us turn them?…There are real human costs to the chronic understaffing that this administration apparently finds acceptable.”

Our retention is declining; our nurses are stressed and burned out and overworked, forced to work overtime shifts, some lasting 16 hours.

– Adam Paulsen, a pediatric intensive care unit nurse at Michigan Medicine

Democratic state lawmakers and other union leaders have thrown their weight behind the Michigan Medicine nurses. State Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor), state Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor) and former United Auto Workers (UAW) President Bob King, for example, all voiced their support for the nurses during Thursday’s town hall.

“This community supports its nurses,” Irwin said. “This community believes in nurses. When you’re out there speaking with one voice about what’s needed to make sure you can be the best frontline worker you can be, everybody in the community hears that. They support that. They know it’s true. I want you to know this community has your back in this fight.”

Rabhi told nurses that “what you’re asking for is reasonable.”

“You want a safe hospital, a safe workplace — safety for you, safety for your patients,” Rabhi said. “That is not unreasonable. 

“I can tell you there are people watching all across Michigan what is happening here,” he continued. “They are ready to fight with you. It’s going to get hard; there will be more difficult times ahead…But even at its toughest, I want you to know I am out there, Jeff [Irwin] is out there, and many more are out there across the state to fight for you and to win.”

Rep. Yousef Rabhi | House Democrats photo

Facing daunting working conditions during the pandemic, employees throughout the state and country have recently gone on strike, or threatened to strike, in order to secure contracts that boost wages and provide additional benefits. 

At Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, for example, unionized health care workers ratified a three-year contract in December that increased wages and created incentives to attract and retain health care workers. In December, unionized Kellogg’s workers from four states, including a cereal plant in Battle Creek, voted to approve a new five-year contract that increased wages and expanded health care.

“If you are awake … you know this is a workers’ revolution right now,” state Rep. Sarah Anthony said during a rally to support Sparrow workers last fall. “Every corner of the state is on fire.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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