clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

U of C Medical Center nurses strike

“We are disheartened that we had to get to this point,” the hospital president said in a video message Thursday night.

With no talks scheduled until next week, a strike of nurses at the University of Chicago Medical Center began Friday morning.

More than 2,000 nurses, all wearing red T-shirts, lined the sidewalks near the hospital’s main entrance at 58th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue.

Hector Ramirez, a medical surgical nurse at the hospital, had wondered if he’d wake up Friday to news that a deal had been cut.

“The last time we threatened to strike a few years ago, they cut a deal at the last minute and I was thinking maybe that would happen today, but there was more bickering between both sides this time around,” he said.

The striking nurses banged makeshift drums made from buckets, chanted, waved signs and were well received by passing motorists, many who laid on their horns in support.

Messages on picket signs read: “Patient safety is our priority” and “Patients over profit” and “Safe staffing saves lives” and “Nurses outside means something’s wrong inside.”

“It’s really hard to come here and give your all, day in and day out, and not feel appreciated,” said Talisa Hardin, a nurse in the burn unit.

Sharon O’Keefe, the hospital’s president, said in a video message late Thursday that a strike was “inevitable.”

“We are disheartened that we had to get to this point,” O’Keefe said.

The National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United, representing 2,200 workers at the hospital, had called a one-day strike. But the hospital said it will lock out the employees for five days, starting Friday, meaning that its services might not return to normal until Wednesday morning.

More than 2,000 nurses at the University of Chicago Medical Center, represented by National Nurses United, strike outside the South Side hospital, Friday morning, Sept. 20, 2019.
More than 2,000 nurses at the University of Chicago Medical Center, represented by National Nurses United, strike outside the South Side hospital, Friday morning, Sept. 20, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The hospital has put itself on bypass for ambulances, although its emergency services are available for walk-ins. Administrators said they have limited transfers from community hospitals, rescheduled elective procedures and transferred patients on a case-by-case basis to prepare for the disruption.

They said the lockout was required because the 656-bed U of C Medical Center had to offer a guarantee of work to skilled nurses who will replace the strikers. The disruption would affect the Center for Care and Discovery, Mitchell Hospital and Comer Children’s Hospital in Hyde Park, as well as four outpatient clinics.

All locations will be open and patients should keep scheduled appointments while allowing extra time for traffic, the hospital said.

The union’s primary concern remains staffing levels, said Terri Collins, a night shift neonatal nurse at Comer Children’s Hospital and a member of the union’s bargaining committee. She said the hospital is violating its own guidelines for nurse staffing levels, putting patients at risk.

“We have been talking about this since March,” Collins said, explaining that the dispute about staffing has prevented much discussion about salary. Discussions broke down Wednesday, when she said the hospital made an inadequate proposal “on a take it or leave it basis.”

O’Keefe said the hospital proposed adding more than 30 new full-time positions in response to the nurses’ staffing concerns, but those discussions broke down over issues related to incentive pay.

“We run short a lot, and you have to pick up more of the slack, but you can’t be everywhere at once. We need more bodies. We want a safer environment for patients,” Ramirez said at the picket line Friday morning.

The prior four-year contract expired in April. The next bargaining session is Wednesday.

Hospital leaders disputed the union’s characterization of the talks. The NNOC/NNU’s scheduling of concurrent strikes at hospitals in California, Arizona and Florida made it harder to find replacement workers, they said.

“The union leaders’ conduct in ordering our nurses to walk out on our patients is simply reckless and irresponsible,” said Debra Albert, chief nursing officer and senior vice president, patient care services. She said the company “made a major proposal that addressed the union’s concerns and would have resolved the staffing issue. But the union decided to go on strike anyway.”

Albert said progress was being made with the involvement of a federal mediator. “Unfortunately, this strike was called to advance the union’s national publicity agenda at the expense of the people of Chicago’s South Side, and our nurses who serve them,” she said.

Collins said the hospital has contact information for strike captains so it can request help from nurses on the picket lines if there’s an emergency.

Contributing: David Roeder, Tom Schuba, Ashlee Rezin Garcia