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More than 2,000 nurses at the University of Chicago Medical Center, represented by National Nurses United, went on strike Sept. 20, 2019.
Nurses at the University of Chicago Medical Center, pictured here during a one-day strike in September, reached a tentative agreement on a new contract on Saturday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

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A nursing strike averted — and why we hope never to see another

Saturday’s contract settlement — reached just as a second U. of C. nurses strike was looking likely — was the result of both sides honoring a principle of medical ethics: ‘First, do no harm.’ Let it be a lesson for the future.

In a neonatal intensive care unit, premature babies, some so small they could fit in the palm of your hand, must remain in temperature-regulated incubators. The right temperature — between 97.7 to 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit — is critical.

Imagine the finely tuned calibrations required to keep those incubators running correctly. Then imagine what it might take to keep the incubators working properly while transporting those infants across town to another hospital . . . because nurses are about to go on strike.

Any mother or father would be furious — and terrified.

Just that scenario played out during a one-day nurses’ strike in September at the University of Chicago Medical Center, which we know from Sun-Times reporting was distressful to both sides in this labor dispute. The hospital felt the need to transfer 115 patients to other hospitals, including 65 infants from the neonatal ICU.

Neither side since then has wanted to see a replay of that, which no doubt was a major factor in their ability on Saturday to reach a tentative contract settlement — less than three days before a second scheduled strike. Underpinning their sense of urgency was that first principle of medical ethics — “First, do no harm.”

From left, Dr. Kenneth S. Polonsky, dean of the UChicago Biological Sciences Division; Dr. Katie Tataris, EMS medical director; Sharon O’Keefe, president of UChicago Medical Center; Debra Albert, chief nursing officer, and Lorna Wong, executive director of communications, meet with the Sun-Times Editorial Board on Thursday.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

To be a nurse or hospital administrator is not to hold just any old job. Lives are on the line. Health care professionals have a moral obligation to put their patients and communities first, even when that limits their ability to play hardball in a union negotiation.

Saturday’s contract settlement, reached just as the second strike was looking likely, was the result of both sides honoring this professional code. They found a way, even as emotions were running high, to get a deal done.

We don’t yet know the specifics of the settlement, which is to be voted on by the hospital’s 2,200 unionized nurses on Tuesday. But the merits of the deal are best left to the nurses and hospital administrators to judge.

For the sake of Chicago, and especially South Siders, we’re just happy a settlement was reached. The nurses have gone without a contract since April 15. We commend both sides for ending the dispute in time for Thanksgiving week.

We also see a story here about the special responsibilities that both sides in a labor negotiation have when a strike is either prohibited by law for reasons of public safety, as in the case of police officers and firefighters, or allowed by law but still potentially life-threatening, as in the case of nurses.

Nurses have a duty as professionals to be there for their patients. That’s the life they chose. Any strike runs counter to that moral commitment.

But hospitals, too, have a special obligation. If administrators believe that their nurses should never go on strike — the ultimate hammer in a union negotiation — then it’s on them to go to even greater lengths when it comes to bargaining. If the hammer must stay in the toolbox, work especially hard not to look like a nail.

Our sense is that the U. of C.’s negotiators made a big “ask” of the nurses — an end to incentive pay for new nurses. Our sense also is that the nurses’ union, National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United, was kidding nobody — themselves included — when they insisted the September strike did not unduly threaten the quality of care at the hospital or elsewhere in town.

After the one-day strike in September, the nurses were locked out for four additional days because the hospital could hire replacement nurses only on five-day contracts. The hospital was forced to shut down its trauma center, which typically treats eight to 10 severely injured people a day.

Trauma patients who needed lifesaving care, women with high-risk pregnancies and other patients were sent elsewhere. That put an added burden on the city’s other hospitals.

Most of all, we can’t stop thinking about those prematurely born infants, their survival dependent on the perfectly calibrated warmth of incubators, being shuttled to other hospitals.

We’re talking babies, not Amazon packages.

May there never be another nurses’ strike. May both sides always — always — work it out.

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