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More than 6,000 Michigan medical nurses at the University of Michigan Hospital have been working without contracts since July 1. Over the past six weeks, the Michigan Nurses Association-University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council (MNA-UMPNC) has held three rallies at which union bureaucrats and Democratic Party politicians have pledged to “stand with” nurses .
The union’s idea to support nurses, however, has been to make polite appeals to the profit-hungry University of Michigan board of trustees and to keep nurses in the dark about contract negotiations with Michigan. Medical. At no point in this long process did any union bureaucrat utter the word “strike” except to warn the rank and file that it is illegal for public sector workers to strike.
The World Socialist Website recently wrote on this issue, demonstrating that public sector workers can and do strike. In fact, as noted, 1989 saw a determined strike by nurses at the University of Michigan. After 13 days, that strike was broken through an injunction overseen by then-Governor, Democrat James Blanchard.
In the 2018 contract fight, nurses again voted overwhelmingly to strike, but the MNA-UMPNC never called a walkout.
By preventing strikes, the union deprives workers of the only means of pressure they have against management, the ability to hold back their work. The result for Michigan Medicine nurses, like all workers represented by unions today, was a long series of concession contracts.
Now the union wants to tell nurses how they can and cannot talk.
A Facebook ban
On August 9, Renee Curtis, president of the MNA-UMPNC, posted an executive order for all Michigan Medicine nurses on the union’s official Facebook page. In response to a post from a base nurse urging nurses to consider refusing to volunteer for overtime in order to put more pressure on the university in contract talks, Curtis moved quickly to pay some cash. water on that spark.
In a post under the headline “DO’S and DON’Ts of POSTING ON FACEBOOK,” Curtis took it upon herself to gag the members. His message reads, in part:
We CANNOT initiate or promote a work stoppage of any kind without cause or notification. This also means that members may not post messages encouraging action of this nature.
These claims are absurd and nurses should not be intimidated by the union’s scare tactics. Curtis can no more forbid nurses from posting what they want on Facebook than she can tell them what they can or cannot talk about in break rooms.
Curtis’ message raises the fundamental question of freedom of expression. It is worth quoting the First Amendment to the Constitution in its entirety:
Congress will make no law regarding the establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise; or restricting freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people to assemble peacefully and seek redress from the government for their grievances.
Although technically the amendment limits the actions of the government, the principle in this case is the same. The union bureaucracy openly seeks to restrict nurses’ freedom of expression.
Are nurses at Michigan Medicine forced—in addition to handing over hundreds of hard-earned dollars each year to the union bureaucracy, or more accurately, having them automatically taken out of their paychecks—to also give up their basic democratic rights?
Consider the message Curtis tried to silence. The nurse in question didn’t even call a strike, only to ‘withhold volunteer-related work’ for overtime ‘upon announcement of new incentives’. The union bureaucracy tells nurses they can’t talk about not volunteering! Can this be considered the conduct of a democratic organization?
And what does Curtis mean by “proper cause or notice”? Michigan Medicine nurses have been working for six weeks without a contract! That alone is cause enough, and nurses know the time has come for a work stoppage. For the union bureaucracy to block such a move only exposes the MNA-UMPNC’s complicity in the health care system and the Board of Regents’ exploitation of Michigan Medicine nurses.
As for the posting on the “official” Facebook page of the union bureaucracy, the analogy would be with a meeting in a union hall. Here, members should be responsible and should feel free to speak their minds. For many decades, however, union bureaucrats in every industry have forced gun-toting dissident workers to silence at meetings by muting their microphones, shouting them out and retaliating against workers who dare to speak out.
Curtis is no less arrogant in her attempt to silence nurses, who are growing frustrated and speaking out about the bureaucracy’s collusion with Michigan Medicine. In fact, the Curtis gag clearly represents the anti-democratic nature of the union and the attitude of the bureaucracy towards the members.
Why, for example, were the negotiations held behind closed doors? All negotiations must be broadcast live so that members can follow them in full knowledge of the facts. This is how a democratic organization would conduct its business.
Additionally, and critically, in reviewing the minutes of a board meeting with the MNA-UMPNC leadership team held July 21 in the Upper Peninsula, the World Socialist Website learned that the Board of Regents reported as an item of information a request by the university for formal mediation with the MNA-UMPNC.
The union bureaucracy has never shared this crucial information with members. Are the ongoing negotiations between the union and the Board of Regents mediated? Nurses have the right to know.
Such covert and undemocratic conduct on the part of the MNA-UMPNC makes it clear that nurses cannot trust the local executive or the MNA bureaucracy. Democracy and transparency are the hallmarks of a true workers’ organization, and they are totally absent from the MNA-UMPNC.
The role of the union
As the WSWS wrote last Friday, today’s unions bear no resemblance to the militant organizations of an earlier era, when pitched battles and sit-down strikes, often led by socialists, won gains for organized workers in the form of higher wages, better working conditions and better hours. We said it:
They [the unions] have been transformed into organizations that rob workers of billions of dollars in dues in order to enrich the bureaucrats who live a comfortable life in the wealthiest 10% of American society. They suppress the class struggle and form an essential part of the Democratic Party and the imperialist state.
Today’s unions are hollow shells of yesterday’s labor organizations, controlled by bureaucratic parasites whose mission is “to supply management with cheap labor, suppress strikes and collect contributions”. The dues money is the incentive to sell the membership.
As we recently reported, Michigan Medicine nurses pay $62.03 in MNA-UMPNC dues. This does not include the undisclosed amount the nurses pay in local union dues. We wrote:
Some $4,615,000 from the paychecks of 6,200 Michigan Medicine nurses goes to the MNA each year as dues.
Nurses have the right to ask themselves: where is this money going? Does the union use the money to fight for them? The answer is obvious and nurses must draw the necessary conclusions.
A real labor organization would fight tooth and nail against a wealthy and avaricious employer. Michigan Medicine reported an “operating margin” of $339.8 million (the system is technically not-for-profit) for 2021. Its parent, the University of Michigan, is one of the wealthiest universities of the country, with assets of $19.5 billion in fiscal year 2021. This wealth is partly due to billions of investments in hedge funds managed by contributors to the university. It may be legal, but it makes it less corrupt.
The union has always told its members that it could not call a strike without an unfair labor practice on the part of Michigan Medicine. But according to the MNA-UMPNC website, Michigan Medicine is “negotiating in bad faith.” Under national labor relations law, this is grounds for a charge of unfair labor practices. Yet the union refuses to even call a strike vote.
The only way forward for nurses at Michigan Medicine is to take their fight into their own hands. It is certain that the MNA-UMPNC will in no way represent their interests and the nurses must organize themselves independently of the union. The way to do this is to form a grassroots committee.
The rank and file committee, an independent and democratic body, should immediately demand a strike vote and a certain date for a strike, which will continue until the nurses’ demands are met. The WSWS suggests that these demands include:
- Safe staffing ratios, which requires hiring more nurses
- A 15% salary increase plus monthly cost-of-living adjustments
- End of compulsory overtime
Nurses must join their struggle with that of all other Michigan Medicine employees and with the struggles of health care workers across Michigan and across the country. They should broaden their fight to join those of autoworkers, teachers, logisticians and others who are also struggling with inflation, impossible hours and understaffing.
A strike by Michigan Medicine nurses, especially one led by a rank-and-file committee, would send a lightning bolt through the for-profit health care industry. All over the world, healthcare workers would take heart in the struggle of nurses. Such a strike would be the first step in mobilizing the working class against a system that has proven to value profits over life.