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The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

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Nurses’ Union Rally on MLK Day Draws Hundreds As Contract Negotiations With UCMed Continue

At the rally, held in subzero temperatures on January 15, UCMed nurses said that while they hoped to avoid a strike, it wouldn’t be off the table if an agreement with the hospital could not be reached.
Nurses+rally+outside+of+UChicago+Medicine+in+Hyde+Park.
Nurses rally outside of UChicago Medicine in Hyde Park.

More than 200 UChicago Medicine (UCM) nurses and their allies took part in a rally organized by National Nurses United (NNU) Monday morning amid a months-long contract negotiation between the labor union and UCM.

Despite 15 meetings and 15 tentative agreements across nearly four months of negotiations, NNU says that UCM “refuses to take our patient concerns seriously.” These concerns include staffing issues like high patient-to-nurse ratios and low retention of recent hires, as well as the proposed inclusion of a trigger clause that would allow the union to bargain for certain guarantees in case of events such as a pandemic.

Braving subzero temperatures, nurses held picket signs and chanted at the intersection of East 58th Street and South Maryland Avenue in sight of all major UCM facilities in Hyde Park. They came bundled in puffer coats, huge blankets, and hunting jackets, and they cited a variety of reasons for attending.

One recently hired surgical nurse took issue with regularly being switched from one unit to another mid-shift, requiring difficult adjustments. An ICU nurse explained that she often handled up to three patients in life-threatening conditions at once and that UCM denied nurses the opportunity to take overtime shifts as a cost-cutting measure. A cardiac arrest nurse who began in March 2020 said that staffing issues had only worsened since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Julie Kostynick, a Mitchell Hospital nurse who spoke at the rally, connected staffing issues to patient care. Mitchell is one of two main UChicago hospitals in Hyde Park along with the Center for Care and Discovery (CCD). According to Kostynick, Medicare and Medicaid patients, whose government insurance pays hospitals less per treatment than private insurers do, are disproportionately sent to Mitchell.

“Management would rather pull nurses to staff the hospital with fewer Medicare and Medicaid patients,” Kostynick said, adding that Mitchell patients regularly complain about cleanliness even as UCM management denies any disparities between the two hospitals.

“Patients over profits,” Kostynick said to cheers as she ended her speech.

Scott Mechanic, a CCD and Comer Children’s Hospital emergency room nurse participating in contract negotiations on behalf of NNU, explained that the rally was meant to pressure UCM during negotiations, particularly around insufficient staffing. Improving staff retention is a key aspect of nurses’ demands.

“Half of our nurses are new since the last contract was signed four years ago. Turnover’s been extreme,” Mechanic said. He cited burnout as a factor preventing nurses from remaining in their jobs for more than a few years and pointed to lower patient-to-staff ratios as a potential remedy. It’s a larger issue: according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, “insufficient staffing is raising the stress level of nurses, impacting job satisfaction, and driving many nurses to leave the profession.” This national shortage is set to intensify as the U.S. population ages.

Despite hardships on the job, nurses at the rally expressed pride in their work. One Mitchell nurse said that her unit was on the “front line” of mental health and violence issues on the South Side—identified as important concerns in UCM’s most recent Community Health Needs Assessment—and that she regularly deals with threats and verbal abuse, often from psychiatric patients. Though the nurse said these situations can be “frightening,” she added that “nurses put themselves last and patients first.” Many nurses wore their badges to the rally, either because they had just finished work or because they were simply “proud,” as one nurse said.

NNU’s choice of Martin Luther King Jr. Day for the rally reflected nurses’ pride and desire for fairness. U.S. Representative and 2023 Chicago mayoral candidate Jesús “Chuy” Garcia (D–Ill.), barely visible in a gray hoodie through the sidewalk crowd, said he was “proud to stand with those who have chosen to care and improve the lives of other people.” He praised their “selflessness” in working through the pandemic and for “keeping the legacy of Dr. King alive by standing up for justice.”

To these nurses, justice may require a strike. “We really hope we can avoid a strike. We’re going to need to see a lot of movement from the hospital, from where they’re at right now,” said Mechanic.

“It’s been a really hard four years for them,” Mechanic said of NNU’s nurses. “They are willing to strike for a better contract.”

In a statement to The Maroon, UCM said it was “continuing to work collaboratively with National Nurses United to reach a comprehensive contract agreement that meets the needs of our nurses, our growing healthcare organization and the community of patients who rely on us for care.”

According to UCM’s statement, NNU and UCM are meeting five times this month, including two sessions scheduled for later this week.

“We remain committed to working collaboratively and respectfully for a fair and equitable contract that allows us to continue to attract exceptional nurses who meaningfully contribute to our institution and its reputation for excellence,” the statement concluded.

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Nick Rommel, Grey City Reporter
“He toes the line between Cronkite and Kerouac,” Nick Rommel once thought of himself during a Sunday afternoon reverie, a cold beer in one hand and a pencil in the other. Boozy braggadocio? Perhaps. But toeing that line has taken him through cushy offices, pulsating dancehalls, and lonesome beaches. It has introduced him to scholars of freshwater fish, administrators of healthcare behemoths, and the town fiddle players of remote Indian reservations. It’s taken him everywhere from Deutschland to the Dakotas, all in pursuit of a story. But even Nick’s toes get weary. That’s when he finds a comfortable home in the Chicago Maroon’s creative long-form Grey City section. His writing has also appeared in memoryhouse magazine. His radio work appears bi-weekly on WHPK 88.5 FM Chicago. It appeared for one glorious summer on Prairie Public, North Dakota’s NPR affiliate station. It will continue to appear where you least expect it.
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