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Despite tragedy, management resistance, solidarity wins MI nurses new contract

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By Ezra Kane-Salafia ·

After contract talks concluded four years ago, the nurses of AFSCME Local 875 who work at McLaren Hospital in Flint, Michigan, knew that they would have to be prepared to strike the next time they went to the bargaining table.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the nurses were overworked, patient-to-staff ratios were out of control and McLaren wasn’t responding to a growing mountain of grievances.

So Local 875 got to work. Working side by side with Council 25 staff, the local ensured every member of the unit felt they had a voice in the negotiations. The local canvassed members about what they needed in the next contract, what they thought should be fixed at the workplace, and what they required to do their jobs as front-line workers in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

The local made sure every member of the unit knew how to prepare for a strike – saving rainy day funds, postponing big expenses and preparing family and friends.

“We were prepared a year or more ahead of negotiations, and as the pandemic hit it only underlined what we already knew,” said Kelly Indish, president of Local 875. “In order to protect ourselves, our communities and our patients, we would have to be prepared to strike”.

Tragedy underscored the urgency of the situation. In April, two hospital employees, nurse Patrick Cain and Local 2650 member Roger Liddell, who worked as a supply distributor, both died from COVID-19. Then, just after the vote, a beloved nurse and a longtime member of the bargaining team, Santa Staples, also died after contracting the coronavirus while receiving unrelated care in the hospital.

“With so many nurses sick, losing nurses to the pandemic, the nurses had a different perspective on the negotiations – that a good contract that protected us was worth fighting for. We are front-line workers, our profession needs the protection it deserves,” Local 875 Chief Steward Maggie Schaefer said.

The main issues were pay and patient and staff safety. Just as they had predicted after the last negotiation, McLaren management was unwilling to budge on key patient-to-staff ratios, annual raises, insurance costs, hazard pay, and a host of other grievance and staffing issues that the local’s members knew they needed in the contract to keep their patients, their families and themselves safe and healthy.

This time, however, the local’s leaders were in constant communication with other members, providing updates and getting feedback. When the time came, more than 98% of the almost 1,000 nurses in the unit voted to authorize a strike by Nov. 4 if talks failed. It was a powerful message to management: we don’t want to strike, but we will if we have to.

“I think open communication with the members was our strength – it was huge.” Indish said. “If it’s something you deserve, something your patients deserve, you have to stand your ground and keep fighting for it together.”

With just six days left until the end of the negotiations, after marathon sessions at the table, the good news came. McLaren agreed to significantly improved staffing and patient-to-staff ratios, capping insurance costs, the full requested annual raise for the length of the contract, among other issues.

The four-year contract includes a 3% wage increase each year, significant improvements to staffing language, signing and appreciation bonuses and improved language on personal protective equipment. On Nov. 2, the contract was ratified with overwhelming member support.

The hard-fought victory was made possible by iron solidarity.

 “Santa would be very proud of our how hard we fought, how we stood together.” Indish said.

Schaefer agreed.

“Santa was a true friend and union supporter,” she said. “She would be so proud.”

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