As union-affiliated nurses employed by the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) and the hospital braced for a planned one-day nurses’ strike on April 30, an announcement early this week signaled the aversion of the strike and a sudden and complete resolution of more than eight months of contentious contract negotiations between the two parties.
On Monday, Debi Albert, Chief Nursing Officer of the UCMC, issued a statement that said the UCMC and National Nurses United (NNU), the union that represents nurses employed by the UCMC, have reached a tentative contract agreement.
NNU reached a tentative agreement for a new collective bargaining agreement just before midnight on Monday. “As a result of reaching our tentative agreement, NNU has withdrawn its strike notice and thus UCMC can begin restoring patient census,” Albert wrote in the statement.
Bargaining between the UCMC and NNU began last October, when the nurses’ previous contract expired and the two parties could not reach a new agreement. The new contract will likely take effect on May 5, pending the results of an internal NNU ratification vote, which union representative Jan Rodolfo said will pass “with certainty.”
According to Rodolfo, the Midwest Director of NNU, the union successfully bargained for almost all of its goals in the negotiations, which were primarily related to staffing regulations. One of its main objectives was the elimination of nurse rotation at the UCMC, which is the practice of calling in a day-shift nurse to work a night shift, or vice versa. Rodolfo emphasized that NNU considers the practice a health and safety hazard.
“I am very happy to report that there will be no more rotating shifts. The way it will work is that no new shifts will be posted as rotations, and over the course of six months from the point when the contract takes effect, [the UCMC] will transition completely from rotation to hiring permanent shift nurses for those jobs. This is a huge win for patient safety, patient care, and nurses,” she said.
Other sticking points in the negotiations were NNU’s objectives of establishing nurse-to-patient ratios and retaining the jobs of charge nurses, who, in addition to their responsibilities as specialized nurses, perform the administrative role of making staffing recommendations to the UCMC. Rodolfo said that while ratios were not included in the new contract, additional nursing staff will be hired, and charge nurses and their job descriptions will remain intact.
“While ratios were not established, [the UCMC] will be hiring eight new patient care support nurses. These nurses belong to some kind of nursing specialty, and can help with admission, emergencies, or just being an extra set of experienced hands that will provide additional clinical help. [Hiring them] will also reduce patient assignment for charge nurses, who will be available to do more clinical work and will stay on in the bargaining role,” Rodolfo said.
UCMC spokesperson Lorna Wong declined to address any of the details of the new contract.
However, in Albert’s Monday statement, Wong said, “I can tell you that the agreement represents a fair compromise by both sides.”
In assessing why the UCMC agreed to the majority of NNU’s bargaining points, Rodolfo said she thinks the University was moved to concede via a combination of the planned nurses’ strike and the effect of local activism in support of the union cause.
“I think we noticed a significant shift in direction after the strike vote [in January]. The fact that the strike deadline was looming impressed upon the University the need to take its nurses seriously; without a [planned] strike, we would not have made these gains…. The community and student support for the strike was overwhelming, and seeing nurses, patients, and students all together sends the message that we can stop the corporatization of healthcare in its tracks,” Rodolfo said.