Michigan nurses union protests at regents meeting

By Joseph Lichterman, Daily News Editor
Published September 15, 2011

Members and supporters of the Michigan Nurses Association, clad in red t-shirts, packed into the Regents' Room yesterday ready to express their discontent with recent contract negotiations.

The University of Michigan Health System and the MNA have been negotiating contracts since April, and the nurses have been working without a contract since July. In response, MNA members and the union's supporters attended the University's Board of Regents first meeting of the fall semester yesterday in the Fleming Administration Building, to tackle the issue — centered mostly on the nurses’ compensation and benefits — head on.

Speaking to the regents, Keri Bokor, a nurse who works in the UMHS Surgical Intensive Care Unit, said UMHS wants to cut back on benefits by limiting overtime, reducing paid time off and requiring the union to pay more for health insurance, among other parameters.

“If you take away all of those things, including making us pay for more insurance, we’re pretty much taking a pay cut,” Bokor said. “We have nurses that come from Davison, Flint, Lansing, Toledo — we service the entire region. Those nurses aren’t going to want to work here if they don’t have those kinds of benefits.”

Ora Pescovitz, the University’s executive vice president for medical affairs, read a statement on behalf of the University at yesterday’s meeting about the situation. While Pescovitz declined to comment about the specifics of the negotiations, she said that this past week, union leaders petitioned the Michigan Employment Relations Commission to begin collecting information to assist the two sides to reach an agreement.

“We do welcome this process and look forward to a successful conclusion of the negotiations,” Pescovitz said.

Members of the University and Ann Arbor communities in support of MNA — including about 20 undergraduate students — were among the crowd. For the duration of the two-hour meeting that was standing-room only, supporters also held up several large banners that displayed thousands of signatures from University nurses.

Public Policy junior Kevin Mersol-Barg, co-chair of the Social Justice Committee of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, said he attended the meeting because he is worried about the future of collective bargaining rights.

“If we support (the nurses) now, then going into the workplace when we graduate, it’ll be more accommodating to what we want to see in the workplace,” Mersol-Barg said. “We might have more of a say when we go out then, instead of leaving it on the trajectory it’s going on currently, where we might not have any negotiating rights when we graduate.”

Other students behind MNA are members of the Michigan Student Assembly, which passed a resolution at its meeting on Tuesday to support the nurses in the negotiations. For about the last two weeks, representatives of the union have provided information to MSA about the negotiations.

In his regular monthly address before the board, MSA President DeAndree Watson said the assembly was wary of potential impacts the negotiations could have on the campus community.

“After considering the information provided and the concerns of some of the representatives around the table, including the Nursing student representative, the assembly decided to express its support of the Nurses Council in an effort to protect students from any potential negative effects of the contract negotiations,” Watson said.

Representatives from local unions such as the Lecturers’ Employee Organization and the Graduate Employees’ Organization also attended the meeting. Britt Satchwell, president of the Ann Arbor Education Association, spoke before the regents on behalf of the nurses. Despite the tough economic times, Satchwell said the University should be understanding of the nurses’ predicament.

“Just as we try to keep the cuts as far away from the classroom in education, so should you keep the cuts as far away from the hospital corridors and bedsides,” Satchwell said in a prepared statement.

When asked about the negotiations, several regents declined to comment, but Regent Andrea Fischer Newman (R–Ann Arbor) said she appreciated that the union came to speak to the board.

“I think this is appropriate, but I think it’s only one part of the discussion,” Newman said, acknowledging that talks are ongoing behind closed doors.

Regent Denise Ilitch (D–Bingham Farms) said she was “very interested” in continuing to discuss the situation amongst the regents.

“(They) showed a lot of commitment and care, which is always what you want to see from our nurses, and I only have come to expect their professionalism,” Ilitch said.