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1,000 Nurses to Walk off the Job at U. of I. Hospital Tuesday (Update: Strike Averted)

Will Craft

UIH nurses lay down their scrubs and reach for picket signs.

Update: The hospital and the nurses reached a tentative agreement late Monday night, unanimously approved by the nurses’ bargaining committee, and the strike was averted. The contract is still subject to ratification by the union’s members.

More than 1,000 nurses at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System (UI Health) will continue as planned with a one-day strike tomorrow, following a failed attempt by the hospital to prevent almost one-third of the strikers from walking off the job. 

In a series of strike votes in early October, the nurses, represented by the Illinois Nurses Association (INA), approved a one-day strike for October 21 by an overwhelming majority of 609 to 38. The union and the hospital have been locking horns during negotiations of the nurses’ contract, which was set to expire in August but has been extended until the end of October. The strike vote was taken in response to proposals made by the hospital that the union says would endanger patient safety and nurses’ working conditions.

Hospital administrators responded by seeking an injunction against the union to prevent more than 300 of the 1100 nurses from joining the strike under the rationale that they were critical to the hospital’s functioning. On Thursday, a judge in the Cook County Chancery Division approved an injunction against 85 nurses, who will be required to report to work and perform critical services. However, the decision effectively giving 1,000 nurses the go-ahead to join the picket line Tuesday morning, constituting a victory for INA.

The strike is a culmination of more than five months of contract negotiations, during which the union says the hospital has presented proposals that would jeopardize patient safety and nurse job performance. Voting nurses claim the hospital is seeking numerous concessions that will threaten patient care. The hospital has made it clear it intends to cut the number of experienced nurses providing direct patient care,” said Alice J. Johnson, executive director of INA, in a press release announcing the strike.

UI Health, facing declining revenue, announced 250 layoffs in August. Experienced nurses were not included, but the administration wants more control over who can and cannot be fired in the future. The union is calso oncerned about language that it says would allow management to change a nurse’s schedule with only 24 hours notice.

Moreover, nurses designated as charge nurses” currently must handle patient assignments directly, in addition to overseeing and supporting other nurses. INA argues that allowing charge nurses to work without patient assignments will free up more support, giving nurses the chance to take breaks.

The nurses are also seeking a pay raise of 21.5 percent over three years, which UI Health argues will increase costs by $20 million.

Injunctions — court orders used to prevent people or groups from performing certain acts like picketing — have been used by management in a variety of industries to attempt to stop strikes or other protests throughout American history. UI Health cited the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act, which allows injunctions to be issued against unions if the strike is, a clear and present danger to the health or safety of the public.”

In an October 13 letter, UI Health warned the union that if they did not vpermit nurses deemed critical by the hospital to work, an injunction would be pursued. The letter lists nine units that considered critical, including the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit and the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, and claims that allowing the nurses to join the strike would endanger patients. 

INA has argued that the burden of making arrangements during the strike lies with UI Health, and that the 10-day advance notice of the strike should have allowed the hospital time to make contingency plans.

It is UIH’s liability… if they cannot care for the patients during a strike they knew about definitively ten days in advance and almost certainly knew was a strong possibility well before that,” an INA Strike FAQ reads. Over the weekend, hospital staff began moving patients to other facilities in preparation for the strike.

Though the judge partially sided with UI Health on the grounds of ensuring patient care, the union still considers the ruling a success.

This is a victory for our nurses and for all employees who believe they have the legal right to strike as a way to demonstrate to their employer that their unfair and unsafe working conditions are not conducive to employment,” said Johnson in a press release following the court’s denial of a broader injunction.

In a statement issued in response to the strike, UI Health has said that the action runs counter to patient care, but that the hospital will resume normal operations on Wednesday:

The University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System is taking every step necessary to ensure our patients’ continued care and safety even as we prepare for a potential strike by the nurse’s union. We are disappointed that despite progress in the discussions the Illinois Nurses Association leadership intends to hold a one-day strike on Oct. 21,” Avijit Gosh, CEO of University of Illinois Hospital said in a statement. We anticipate the hospital will be back to normal operations on Wednesday. A strike is not in the best interests of our patients, but we are committed to serving the people who rely on us for their health care needs.”

INA lead organizer Paul Nappier believes, ultimately, that the partial injunction won’t dampen the spirit of the action: The 85 who will be forced to work that day will be in solidarity with the strike from the inside.”

Will Craft is a fall 2014 intern with In These Times, and is a political science major at The University of Chicago. He has previously worked for The Cancer Letter and The Triple Helix. He is also a devout member of Le Vorris &Vox;, the University of Chicago circus. He is on twitter @craftworksxyz.
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