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After filing an unfair labor practice charge against the University of Michigan, U-M nurses gathered at the Board of Regents meeting to call for safer staffing and speak out against budget cuts that could potentially harm patient care. 

U-M nurses have been working without a contract since it expired on June 30. During a rally and informational picketing session on July 14, more than 2,000 nurses gathered at Fuller Park to call for safer staffing.

Since the rally, University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council filed the charge against the University not only after several nurses’ units banned UMPNC shirts featuring the block ‘M’ as well as other union paraphernalia, but also after UMPNC said Michigan Medicine failed to live up to a written commitment to maintain current staffing levels. 

An unfair labor practice occurs when a union or an employer violates Section 8 of the National Labor Relations Act, part of which states, “Employers are prohibited from activities that interfere with their employees’ rights to act collectively.” 

“Dr. Spahlinger made a specific commitment to our members in an email; then his representatives turned around and broke that commitment,” John Karebian, executive director of the Michigan Nurses Association, said in the press release. “That is more than just an empty promise. Either Spahlinger lied or his representatives at the bargaining table failed to keep his commitment. We filed a ULP charge to hold the University accountable and to keep patients safe.”

In the press release, UMPNC references Spangler’s July 2 email to UMPNC outlining the goals of a potential new contract with the nurses.

“Of the many issues raised as priorities for negotiation, a significant portion have been resolved,” the email reads, going on to highlight a contract that eliminates mandatory overtime, provides for additional compensation for overtime and increases hourly shift premiums, weekend bonuses, and education for sexual harassment processes and potentially harmful chemical exposure.

The email also states Michigan Medicine’s commitment to safe staffing levels.

“Importantly, the University has committed to maintaining current staffing levels,” the email reads.

UMPNC said in their press release Michigan Medicine has not kept their promise.

“(D)uring the contract negotiations this week, University administrators refused to agree to maintain staffing levels in the nurses’ contract,” the press release reads.

Michigan Medicine spokesperson Mary Masson responded to the ULP explaining the charge is groundless.

“This unfair labor practice is groundless and the union’s portrayal of the situation is inaccurate,” Masson wrote in an email interview. “We have committed to maintaining current staffing levels. The University has and will continue to bargain in good faith with the union and is prepared to vigorously defend any claim that it has not bargained in good faith.”

At the Board of Regents meeting, nurses not only argued for safer staffing but detailed the ramifications of Michigan Medicine’s cutbacks on hospital expenses. Some even wore pins and shirts saying, “Where are the graham crackers?” referencing the hospital’s recent cutback which resulted in nurses no longer being able to provide graham crackers for patients with low blood sugars.  One UMPNC advocate explained the nurses could only obtain graham crackers for patients now by ordering them through the food service — a much longer process.

Lynn Detloff, a registered nurse in perinatal care at the University, detailed several other cutbacks the hospital has made, explaining the hospital has eliminated meal passes which provided free hospital food for patients, as well as cutting back on bereavement trays, which are trays of complimentary food offered to patients impacted by personal loss.

“This is nursing at its finest; this is compassion,” Detloff said regarding the bereavement trays and memory boxes for families experiencing tragedy in the perinatal unit.

“At a time when people desperately need to eat to keep up their strength for the physical toll put on their bodies by grief, Michigan Medicine’s response is that you are worth a muffin or a protein bar but not a meal for you and your family — our profit margin is more important,” Detloff said. “I think we can be so much better than that. I’m embarrassed that I am not able to show more compassion to grieving families because of cutbacks that I don’t think are necessary. I look at the report where Michigan Medicine reported $103 million surplus for 2018 and yet we are too cheap to give a meal tray to a family that just lost their infant.”

Similarly, registered nurse Megan Duncan explained how a previous cutback made by Michigan Medicine that replaced personal monitoring of heart rates with remote telemetry in her unit caused health issues for patients at the hospital. Remote telemetry had a telemetry monitorer looking after the heart rates of up to 64 patients remotely, instead of a nurse monitoring three patients personally. Duncan said the practice didn’t allow nurses to respond to patients in time. The nurses within her unit kept track of the patients who were negatively impacted by the practice, turning safety forms in to management and, as a result, remote telemetry was removed as of July 18.

Duncan used the example of remote telemetry potentially harming patients to explain why nurses need a say in staffing and providing safe patient care.

 “Give us a voice by letting us choose our own representatives at workplace committees, where we can have an actual say in staffing and safe practices,” Duncan appealed to the board.

While Duncan and Detloff argued the hospital’s cutbacks are negatively affecting patient’s care, Ken Warshaw, a registered nurse in the operating room at the University, said Michigan Medicine is misusing the nurses like a big corporation concerned primarily with profit, referencing the $103 million surplus and about $4.3 billion revenue of Michigan Medicine, as well as the University’s magnet status. 

“We are elite nurses and we should be treated as elite,” Detloff went on to say. “It feels like you used the nurses to get the magnet status.”

Finally, UMPNC Vice Chair Donna Carnahan emphasized UMPNC’s primary concern is patient safety.

“We provide world-class nursing care,” Carnahan said. “The UMPNC’s bargaining concern is about patients and the care they receive.”

Carnahan said even after 35 years of working as a U-M nurse she can no longer trust Michigan Medicine.

“I no longer feel I can trust my lifelong employer,” Carnahan went on to say. “I fear the University is now prioritizing profits over patient safety.”

After the four nurses completed their public comments, University President Mark Schlissel adjourned the meeting.

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