Nurses association negotiates 13 percent salary increase

By Andrew Moesel

Using the threat of a strike as leverage, the Illinois Nurses Association (INA) reached a tentative agreement on contract negotiations with the University Hospitals on Monday. While the vote to officially ratify the contract will take place on Wednesday, May 12, officials on both sides believe the nurses will accept the University’s terms.

The agreement on the table would raise salaries 13 percent over the next three years—five percent the first year, and four percent the subsequent two years—as well as pay the nurses retroactively starting from October 1, 2003. Senior staff members will also receive salary incentives during the first year of the contract.

“There are mixed feelings going on at the moment [among the nurses]. But the majority seems to be willing to go ahead,” said Liz McCallough, chair of the University Hospital local unit of the INA. “Some are discontented, but many others realize that you can’t have everything.”

During the initial negotiations in March, the nurses rejected a proposal that would raise their salaries 11 percent over the same three-year period but not offer retroactive pay. Soon after, more than 700 of 1200 nurses voted for a possible strike were talks to fall through a second time.

During the negotiation session this week, INA officials laid out letters of intent to strike on a table in front of hospital managers. Some nurses present described the initial attitude of hospital negotiators as condescending and arrogant, adding the management only acquiesced to the nurse’s demands once the possibility of a strike became more apparent.

The two parties made little headway during face-to-face conversations, and enlisted the help of a professional mediator to resolve the dispute. After relaying information between the parties three or four times, a settlement was reached at 5 p.m.

“Working men and women have only one hammer against their employers, and that’s the power to strike,” said Ken Daugherty, senior staff specialist at INA. “You never want to be forced to strike, but that’s the ultimate [power] and we were prepared to take it to the ultimate.”

Daugherty said nurses are often very passive, which leads many hospitals to take advantage of them during labor negotiations. He praised the ability of University Hospital nurses to rally together and thereby effectively influence the terms of their contract.

University Hospital officials, while emphasizing the actual outcome of the contract is still in question, said they are encouraged that both sides seem satisfied with the tentative agreement.

“Most people had the sense that the odds were not very high a strike would actually occur,” said John Easton, director of media and public affairs at University Hospitals. “We just wanted to make a real effort to make both sides happy and make a contract that was pleasing and acceptable.”

Many nurses contend, however, that the University Hospital managers used intimidation and bully tactics to force the nurses into voting for an agreement against their best interests. Some superiors have been accused of telling nurses that they would be fired if they voted for a strike.

In a letter circulated to all hospital employees, Michael Riordan, president and CEO of University Hospitals, voiced his disappointment that the nurses had chosen to pursue such a confrontational path. INA officials said the letter overestimated the amount that the average nurse is paid, making it seem as though their complaints for higher wagers were unwarranted.

The possible strike also comes on the heels of a controversy involving the firing of nearly 50 hospital employees over a series of parking violations. Some staff said the terminations, or at least their timing, were politically motivated to scare hospital employees before the upcoming contract negotiations.

Easton said the firings and the negotiations were unconnected, citing the fact that only a handful of those terminated were licensed nurses.

Joyce Moralis, treasurer of the INA local unit, said the University might have begun cooperating with the nurses in an attempt to gain Magnet Status, an elite classification for hospitals that have excellent relations with their staff. Only two hospitals in Chicago currently have Magnet Status: Rush and Children’s.

The INA has received support from several doctors as well as the Teamsters employees within the hospital. Students Organized and United with Labor (SOUL) has also backed the nurse’s campaign by attending meetings and rallies.

Despite the difficulties in creating the contract, both parties seem eager to move forward and focus on helping patients receive the best quality care possible.

“This is an awkward position, but I’m glad everyone is happy with the agreement and we can concentrate on getting back to being on the forefront of medicine,” Easton said.