As large numbers of laid-off University of Chicago Medical Center workers protested outside the hospital on South Ellis Avenue last Tuesday, roughly 30 student activists stood alongside them.
Before a crowd of onlookers and cameras from several local TV stations, the demonstrators brandished signs reading “U of C shame on you” as they chanted “Health care is a right, health care is a right, that’s right!” in opposition to last Monday’s announcement of clerical and administrative job cuts at the hospitals.
The demonstration was organized by Teamsters Local 743, which represents many of the impacted workers and was held in collaboration with Students Organizing United with Labor (SOUL) and Students for a Democratic Society, two RSOs, and Graduate Students United. The student groups advertised the protest around campus and helped produce and distribute picket signs.
The students and workers were especially concerned that Monday’s decision to lay off 450 employees went hand in hand with the introduction of a new triage policy in the E.R. that some see as restricting health care access to low-income patients. As of last week, the Medical Center will now turn away patients who arrive at the E.R. not in need of critical care, instead referring them to one of the Medical Center’s less expensive community health centers, which are located in neighborhoods throughout the South Side.
Speaking to the demonstrators, Richard Berg, president of Teamsters Local 743, said, “This is part of their shifting from treating the poor, from treating working people, to trying to only do the most lucrative procedures. This is a crime and they should be ashamed of what they’re doing.”
Third-year Nate Wilmers, a SOUL organizer, said student protesters worry that the new E.R. procedures will mean that students and community members in need of medical care will have to travel farther to receive it.
“I think our message at the rally was that cutting the hospital work force is a reason and a basis for the cuts in services,” Wilmers said. “Obviously, people are extremely frustrated about the way the University has decided to handle these budget cuts. People are scared and confused and angry at the University and the Medical Center.” Wilmers also mentioned that a rise in profits at the Medical Center in recent years was a source of frustration for protesters.
The Medical Center defended its new practices in a press release, saying, “These changes are designed to help connect patients who don’t truly need emergency care to other, more appropriate health care settings, such as neighborhood clinics. This effort to help patients establish medical homes applies to all patients, whether they have insurance or not.”
In addition to the new E.R. policies, several protesters cited the letting go of long-time employees and the sudden nature of the layoffs as particular grievances with the Medical Center.
“They escorted [laid-off employees] to the door as if dedicated employees were thieves in the night,” said Melanie Cloghessy, a project assistant in the University’s music department and member of Teamsters Local 743.
“I was in shock,” said Sherri Taylor-Kennedy, a former secretary for pediatric care who worked at the Medical Center for 14 years. “How am I going to pay my $1500 rent, how am I going to take care of my six kids? I mean, this is devastating. I didn’t have any plans on leaving the hospital.”
Another long-term employee, former pediatrics project assistant Joann Cox, said that she was at the protest “to get my job back after 15 years.”
Wilmers noted that the demonstration was conducted on public property and said he was unaware of any problems or reactions from the administration.—Additional reporting by Ella Christoph