Michigan Medicine nurses and supporters attend a picket for safer conditions and a fair contract organized by the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council at Fuller Park in July. Tess Crowley/Daily. Buy this photo.

Michigan Medicine has failed to bargain in good faith with its nurses, the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council alleges.

With the union and the University of Michigan at a stalemate after six months of negotiations, 6,200 MNA-UMPNC nurses have worked without a contract since the previous one expired June 30. In that time, the union has organized rallies and created a community petition to call attention to its demands for safer working conditions for nurses. 

The union’s demands include an end to understaffing by way of safe nurse workload ratios, fair wages, and an end to mandatory overtime. Unfair labor practice charges filed against the University allege that the administration has violated state law by refusing to bargain with the union over nurse-to-patient staffing ratios and retaliating against nurses who engaged in union activity. 

On Aug. 15, the MNA filed a lawsuit with the Michigan Court of Claims alleging that the University’s refusal to bargain over nurse workloads was a violation of the Public Employment Relations Act 336 of 1947. The lawsuit seeks an injunction that would force the University to negotiate staffing ratios with the union. 

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Renee Curtis, UMPNC president and registered nurse, said safer workload ratios are the union’s most significant demand because they ensure quality patient care and a safe working environment for nurses.

“The basis of our profession is … the service that we provide for our patients,” Curtis said. “When we’re unable to provide care for our patients due to understaffing due to issues relative to workload, it causes more trauma not only for the nurses, but it puts patients at risk for adverse events, and it creates poor patient outcomes as a result of not being able to have a registered nurse at the bedside.”

Though the union views workload ratios as a necessary component of negotiations, the administration of University of Michigan Health, Michigan Medicine’s clinical division, says otherwise. Michigan Medicine spokesperson Mary Masson wrote in an email to The Daily that the administration’s stance is supported by state law.

“Under decisions of the Michigan Employment Relations Commission and Michigan appellate courts, the determination of employee staffing levels is a “non-mandatory” subject of bargaining — something that a public employer has no obligation to bargain over — unless the staffing requirements are inextricably intertwined with the health and safety of bargaining unit employees,” Masson wrote.

Masson wrote that the proposal, which the University believes is “compelling and generous,” includes a 21% base pay increase for nurses over four years, a safe elimination of mandatory overtime, a $4,000 bonus for members of the union’s bargaining team and expanded staffing guidelines.  

On Sept. 2, 96% of the over 4,000 MNA-UMPNC members voted in favor of a strike authorization, which allows the union’s bargaining unit to call for a work stoppage at any time. Though state law does not allow strikes by public sector employees, a FAQ section on the union’s website says nurses would only engage in a work stoppage to protest unfair labor practices, not to call for higher wages or to change the terms of their work. 

A Sept. 2 UMPNC statement said the bargaining team would only call a work stoppage if they deemed it “absolutely necessary.” Curtis said a strike would be a last resort and that the union just wants to openly discuss workload demands in its negotiations with the University.

“We do not have a shortage of nurses willing to work, we have a shortage of nurses willing to work in the working conditions of our hospitals,” Curtis said. “We would like to do everything possible to avert any type of work stoppage, and we are prepared and willing to meet at any point in time and continue any discussions necessary.”

When asked about a potential strike, Masson wrote that the hospital has extensive staffing plans in place if the union were to call for a work stoppage.

“Patients in our hospital can expect our standard of care to continue,” Masson wrote. “We are concerned about future access, but we have extensive plans in place as we’ve been preparing for the possibility of a strike authorization.”

In an interview with The Daily, Anne Jackson, MNA-UMPNC member and registered nurse, said despite the union’s size and 48-year tenure, the administration was failing to respect nurses’ basic rights.

“This is all about holding the University accountable and (making) sure that they follow the law,” Jackson said. “We believe that they have failed to bargain in good faith. They’ve made improper changes to our working conditions … We believe they’re undermining the largest union on campus.”

The possibility of a work stoppage in response to poor working conditions is not unique to nurses at Michigan Medicine. On Sept. 12, 15,000 members of the Minnesota Nurses Association went on strike to call for safer staffing and improved quality of care for patients.

MNA-UMPNC has signaled support for Minnesota nurses, writing in a tweet that going on strike is not an easy decision to make.

“It’s a heavy decision made with care and yes, with grief,” the tweet reads. “But also resolve, and dedication, and a responsibility to protect our patients and our profession. Shame on the administrators who push #nurses to this point.”

On Sep. 14, the University of Michigan Central Student Government unanimously approved a resolution signaling support for the union. LSA senior Kareem Rifai, communications director and CSG spokesperson, told The Daily the assembly would like to see a resolution be reached as quickly as possible.

“The position of the President and Vice President is that they hope that a resolution (is) reached as quickly as possible, so that the nurses at Michigan Medicine can continue providing the highest quality of care in the state,” Rifai said.

Rifai also said he felt a personal connection to Michigan Medicine nurses after having received care at the hospital when he was younger.

“When I was 13, I went to the U-M hospital and had pretty major bone surgery, and the nurses at the U-M hospital really took care of me,” Rifai said. “I have a lot of respect for them, and I hope everything works out for them. They deliver the top tier of care in the state, so I hope, personally, that their needs are met.”

Jackson said nurses want to be respected by the University so they can continue to provide quality care to patients. 

“(The administration needs) to follow the law, and they need to negotiate with us over workload ratios,” Jackson said. “There’s nothing more basic for a nurse than that. We would also like them to resolve the other unfair labor practices that we allege, and we’re frustrated by the pattern of not (doing so). We’re just asking for our basic rights afforded by the law.”

Curtis said she wants the greater U-M community to know patient safety remains the union’s number one priority, and nurses just want to have their voices heard.

“We know what safe patient care is, and we know how important it is for our patients,” Curtis said. “At the end of the day, what really matters is the safety of not only our nurses, but that of our patients, because our patients are every single member of the community. And that’s what’s important to us.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Irena Li can be reached at irenayli@umich.edu.