University of Michigan nurses call for 'safe staffing' as contract negotiations continue

Kayla Ruble
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Hundreds of nurses and their family members gathered in Ann Arbor on Saturday morning to protest working conditions and staffing concerns as contract negotiations with the University of Michigan health system continue.

A sea of people wearing bright red T-shirts and holding signs scrawled with slogans like “patients over profits” filled the grassy field at Fuller Park, which sits in front of the campus at University Hospital. 

The show of force comes two weeks after contracts expired for more than 6,000 nurses following months of labor negotiations between Michigan Medicine and the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council.

At the morning rally a slate of politicians, organizers, and union leaders addressed the crowd before the union nurses and their supporters filed out, forming a lengthy picket line along the perimeter of the hospital. 

“People in the community understand that your working conditions are their care conditions,” said Ron Bieber, president of the AFL-CIO, calling the latest contract concessions offered by the hospital’s management “despicable.” 

“We’ve got your back, we’ll be here with you in this fight,” Bieber said. “You are going to win. All you have to do is stand together and fight together and you’ll win justice.”

Jennifer Suchyta is behind the effort for safe staffing for Michigan Nurses in Ann Arbor on Saturday, July 16, 2022,

Before joining the picket line, a group of labor and delivery nurses at the hospital gathered together for a photo with their families. 

Some of the nurse’s top demands include safe staffing levels, an end to mandatory overtime hours, and changes to the paid time off policy.

“We’re advocating for our patients for safe staffing and for our nurses, who work hours and hours on end and then have to fight for our contract when we’re working so hard to care for our patients,” said Tasneem Abdul-Basir, a 45-year-old nurse. 

“It's really, really, really frustrating cause we're here to represent all the nurses here working hard, striving to take care of our patients.”

Michigan Medicine officials say they are continuing to work in earnest with the UM Professional Nurses Council to create a new labor agreement following expiration of the previous contract on June 30.

“Our nurses are the backbone of our health system,” the hospital’s nurse executive Nancy May said in an emailed statement on Saturday. “I could not be prouder of our nurses and the care they provide.”

Nurses march for safe staffing at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor on Saturday, July 16, 2022.

May acknowledged that the hospital’s nurses are “a key reason” for the facility’s performance and track record of being recognized for its patient safety. According to the hospital, the contract terms they’re currently offering recognizes their staff’s value. Some aspects of the current proposal highlights by the health system include increases to the average salary, 

Mary Masson, director of public relations, said nurses were offered a 5% raise per year for four years.

According to Ruth Moscarello, who also works in the labor and delivery ward, the staff is seeing more patients with fewer nurses.

“It's not fair for our patients and staff here that we can't provide them the care that they need,” said Moscarello. 

Hundreds of nurses march on the grounds of the University of Michigan Hospital and hold an informational picket.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, acknowledged the stressful working conditions nurses are facing across the health care sector and she offered her support for the demands being made by the union.

“Some people are hitting the breaking point. It’s hard, it’s scary,” said Dingell, wearing a bright red shift dress as she acknowledged the stress the nurses are under.

Dingell referenced a recent hospital stay of her own, where she said she observed nurses juggling high numbers of patients at once. “We must do something now, it isn’t safe,” she said.

As the congresswoman wrapped up her speech she fired up the crowd with a chant.

“What do we want?” Dingell asked.

“Safe staffing,” the nurses responded. “Now.”