Michigan nurses strike for patient care

MOUNT CLEMENS, Mich. — “We’re out here for the patients,” said Mary James, a medical-surgical nurse at Mount Clemens General Hospital. “We can’t give them proper care. Money is not an issue — just give us more help,” she said.

James, a picket captain with over 30 years of nursing experience, was one of more than 500 nurses of Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 40 who went on strike Aug. 9 for better staffing levels and a modest wage increase. On Sept. 13, the nurses voted 316-21 to end the strike, agreeing to a 2 percent raise and a commitment from the hospital to hire 25 more full-time nurses.

Shortly before the settlement, on Sept. 10, James told the World that insufficient staffing at the hospital has jeopardized patient care and that the problem is getting worse. “They haven’t replaced the 100 or so nurses who have quit in the past two years,” she said, noting that it’s not unusual for each nurse to be responsible for six, eight or even more patients.

Some states have legislation mandating adequate staffing levels and the nurses and other health care advocates are working to pass similar legislation in Michigan.

Rosanna Lucci, a medical-surgical nurse for the past seven years, said maintaining nurse staffing levels is crucial because patients who are admitted today are in worse shape, health-wise, than in previous years. Lucci said insurance company “utilization reviews” mean that only the sickest patients gain hospital admittance. Such patients require a higher level of care.

Lucci said, “We are in the front lines trying to be advocates for patients.” In addition to fighting for quality health care for their patients, Lucci said a big part of nursing is teaching patients how to care for themselves after they are discharged. Both advocacy and teaching require large amounts of a nurse’s time, she said.

Arlene Reinhart, an anesthesia nurse in surgical services, said a second issue of the strike was the hospital’s push for cross-training. The hospital wants to be able to “pull you” from your area and send you to an area that is not your specialty, she said. Reinhart said that in this day and age nursing, like all medical services, is very specialized. “Would you want your auto mechanic doing open heart surgery?” Reinhart asked.

Picket captain Shannon Gottado, who works in the labor and delivery department, said it used to be that hospitals put nurses’ needs at the top, but now it’s all about cutting costs.

During the strike, the hospital brought in scabs from the U.S. Nursing Corp. based in Colorado. It paid them $40 per hour plus expenses, about 40 percent more than the top pay for skilled nurses, according to Nora Walsh, another longtime nurse.

Nurses are following the November elections and are carefully evaluating which candidates support labor. A concern for President George Bush might be that many are looking for a change. “We need Kerry in office,” said Gottado.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.