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Over the course of two years, three different unions — the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council, the Lecturers’ Employee Organization and Graduate Employees’ Organization — have threatened to strike in response to budget cuts and staffing levels at the University.

LEO President Ian Robinson said these incidents are a reaction to a broader shift at the University, related primarily to what Robinson sees as a prioritization of financial concerns.

“It’s a new model that is taking place at the University,” Robinson said. “It is a model that has moved from focusing on the interests of the public to profit. Really the birth of these unions is the result of this new model. These strikes are the same fight as the fight that made these unions form.”

As the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council prepares to vote on the tentative contract agreement with the University after 100 days of bargaining and an impending strike, UMPNC Chief Grievance Chair John Armelagos said the demands and concerns of nurses at the University have not changed since the union’s formation in 1974.

The primary motivation behind the union’s formation was a need to improve working conditions. Staff were exposed to an unlimited number of consecutive work days, multiple shift changes within a week and mandatory overtime.

Though in current negotiations with Michigan Medicine, nurses were able to reach a tentative contract agreement without having to implement work stoppage, in 1981 and 1989 hundreds of nurses were forced to walk the picket line before they could come to a satisfactory agreement with the administration. In ’81 the nurses went on a 3-week strike and in ’89 the nurses went on a 19-day strike.

Armelagos said he participated in the strike of ’89.

“I was active on the picket line,” Armelagos said. “The main reason we picketed was due to mandatory overtime. Nurses were subjected to working in an unlimited fashion. The hours that nurses were expected to work were excessive.”

Anne Jackson, the onsite representative for the ambulatory care services at the University, said she sees connections between the strikes of ’81 and ’89 and nurses’ demands for their current contract.

“The common thread is nursing as patient care advocates attempting to do the best we can as registered nurses,” Jackson said. “’81 was about nurses gaining more professional economy. In ’89 it was about nurses being too exhausted to deliver safe care. Today, the main issue is also patient care.”

Jackson, who joined as a nurse at the University in 1984, said the main difference between previous strikes and the nurses’ current efforts, however, is communication.

“Back then, because we didn’t have the same technology to be able to communicate that we have today, I don’t think we were as aware of what was going on at the bargaining table,” Jackson said.  

Armelagos said through the years UMPNC has worked to build a positive relationship with hospital administration, but over time, with the development of new bargaining techniques, the nurses’ relationship with the hospital has eroded.

“We built the respect that got us interest-based bargaining,” Armelagos said. “We built the respect to work as equal partners with the University. (Interest-based bargaining) motivated the two parties to come together and work together.”

Interest-based bargaining is a problem-solving approach during which the two parties jointly define the issues, brainstorm solutions and seek creative solutions that address shared interests. Unlike traditional bargaining, interest-based bargaining does not involve coercion, instead relying on both parties seeking to fulfill each other’s interests.

Armelagos explained during negotiations between the nurses and the administration in 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2011, the University employed interest-based bargaining techniques.

“The parties tried to understand and appreciate the other’s perspective,” Armelagos said. “If one side had a problem, the other side had one too.”

Armelagos said the hospital owes its success to the unity that was developed between the nurses and the administration through interest-based bargaining.

“That’s how we gained magnet status,” Armelagos said. “It was a dual partnership. When you have a strong union, nurses can stand up for their patients, but a strong union makes it more difficult for a corporate hospital. Our bottom line is the patients, the hospitals bottom line should be the patients. Make no mistake, now, there is a new regime in place that has no interest in an interest-based process.”

One of the main differences Armelagos and Jackson cited in current negotiations was the hospital’s treatment of the nurses during the bargaining process. Jackson said it was particularly disheartening for nurses when they had to file an unfair labor charge.

“This particular work stoppage vote is especially about how we were treated at the bargaining table,” Jackson said.

The nurses filed the charge against Michigan Medicine for prohibiting them from wearing their red union shirts and pro-union buttons.

Lecturers’ concerns

While LEO, an organization representing nearly 1,700 non-tenure track faculty members across the University’s three campuses, did not have to file an unfair labor charge Robinson believes LEO and the UMPNC represent similar issues at the University.

“Both unions represent employees that are very oriented to the people they provide their services to,” Robinson said. “It’s very care-oriented work and there are a lot of overlapping interests between the two groups.”

When LEO authorized a strike for April 9, they were bargaining with the University for salary increases.

At the time, the minimum starting salary for a U-M lecturer was $34,500 in Ann Arbor, $28,300 in Dearborn and $27,300 in Flint. LEO asked the minimum be raised to $60,000 in Ann Arbor and $56,000 in Dearborn and Flint. After bargaining for months with the University when LEO’s contract expired May 29, LEO voted to ratify a new contract that included a significant salary increase.

By September 2020, the minimum salary at which the University can hire lecturers will increase across the three campus. In Ann Arbor, the base salary will increase 47.8 percent from $34,500 to $51,000. In Flint, there will be a 50.2 percent increase from $27,300 to $41,000. Finally, in Dearborn, the starting salary will increase 44.9 percent from $28,300 to $41,000.

Robinson said LEO owes the success of its new contract to the imminent threat posed by work stoppage.

“It (the impending strike) made a very big difference in the case of LEO,” Robinson said. “In fact, I would say that was the first time the administration began to take us seriously and bargaining began to move in the right direction.”

Graduate students’ concerns

Similarly, in April 2017 the Graduate Employee Organization, a union representing graduate student instructors and graduate student staff at the University, authorized a walkout in an effort to create paid positions and guarantee union protection for graduate students working on diversity programs as part of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan.

The University launched the five-year DEI plan in October 2016 to achieve a more diverse and equitable campus, which some have criticized for a lack of swift action.

Current GEO President Emily Gauld said the union decided collective graduate student action was the only way to get the administration to take their concerns seriously.

“Our walkout authorization showed we were willing to fight for it in a very real and tangible way,” Gauld said. “It showed the graduate students were willing to take action to see the changes that we believe are necessary.”

While University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald was unable to comment on negotiations with the UMPNC as the nurses are still voting on the contract, he said the University does not make bargaining decisions based on threats.

“The university does not believe a strike or the threat of a strike is necessary to move the negotiations toward a settlement,” Fitzgerald wrote in an email interview. “We also do not believe a strike or the threat of a strike influences the final, negotiated settlement. We also need to point out that under state law, labor strikes by public employees are prohibited.

Much as the UMPNC and LEO reached a tentative agreement shortly after the strike authorizations, Gauld says GEO reached a tentative agreement the day before the walkout was set to take place.

Ultimately, Gauld said the number of walkout authorizations that have occurred over the course of two years is a positive sign for unions at the University.

“It is really exciting to see increased labor organization,” Gauld said. “The strength of unions is increasing, especially at the University of Michigan. Unions are becoming more united even in the face of institutions that seek to divide unions and I think that is powerful.”

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