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Nurses march through Ann Arbor demanding contract

By Stephen Zoski, For the Daily
Published October 12, 2011

Crowds of shouting people decked in red marched through Ann Arbor streets yesterday, as University of Michigan Health System nurses and their supporters rallied for a finalized contract.

Represented by the statewide union, the Michigan Nurses Association, UMHS nurses — who have been without a contract since June 30 — were joined by hundreds of supporters at a rally that started at Liberty Plaza on East Liberty Street yesterday afternoon and ended with picketing in front of the University Hospital.

Complaints from the UMHS nurses gained attention this summer when MNA filed a grievance with the state against the health system for violating state law and collective bargaining rights. The nurses are angered by what they see as unreasonable concessions such as cuts to benefits, overtime limitations, reductions in paid time off and an increase in health insurance costs.

At yesterday’s rally, officers from the University’s Department of Public Safety stood guard in front of the hospital as on-the-clock hospital workers banged windows and cheered from inside while employees off duty came out in full force.

Addressing the crowd, Katie Oppenheim, president of the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council, accused the University administration of being inconsiderate of the University's nurses.

“It seems a bit strange that the University of Michigan and its administration are so willing to refuse to appreciate and bargain in good faith with the very people who work so tirelessly — so compassionately — and who help make the University health system such a highly recognized and premier health care institution in our nation,” Oppenheim said.

MNA President Jeffrey Breslin also spoke at the event and compared the union’s negotiations with the Occupy Wall Street movement, in which protesters across the nation are voicing their discontent with politicians and corporations.

“Wall Street caused this crisis, and we demand Wall Street pay us back. It wasn’t Wall Street that bailed out the banks. It wasn’t us that crashed the economy. Yet we are the ones that are suffering,” Breslin said. “Because nurses are America’s most trusted profession, and because of our deep commitment to patient advocacy, we’re demanding that our legislators support (the) nurses’ version of the Occupy Wall Street campaign.”

Susan Ahlstrom, who has worked at the University Hospital as a nurse on the surgical floor for three years, echoed Breslin’s sentiments regarding the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“The public has to realize that nurses have jobs that are demanding physically, emotionally and intellectually,” Ahlstrom said. “... I think that the money needs to be spread more evenly when 1 percent of the people are taking care of 90 percent of the wealth.”

Ahlstrom added that the proposed benefit cuts hit close to home considering the sacrifices nurses make to care for their patients, like staying overnight despite having families of their own.

“Health care workers want to be able to receive the same kind of care I give my patients,” she said.

Union leaders and local politicians like State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) and Yousef Rabhi, a commissioner on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners and recent University graduates also addressed the crowd yesterday and emphasized the importance of nurses and the necessity of contract negotiations.

Tom Mallon, a UMHS nurse since 2004, said he’s supporting MNA because he is displeased with how nurses are being treated.

“I've historically never been a pro-union guy, but when I see the University giving their administrators and giving their executives substantial pay increases and then asking me — as a staff nurse — to work more hours but reduce my access to overtime and increase my healthcare cost, it’s a slap in the face,” Mallon said.