Nurses' strike hits one-year mark

Friday, November 14, 2003

PETOSKEY, Mich. -- For a year now, through the autumn chill, the winter snows, the spring rain and the summer heat, hundreds of nurses have been on strike at Northern Michigan Hospital in a dispute that illustrates what is ailing the nursing profession.

"I'm doing this for nursing. I gain nothing from this strike," said Patricia Beer, who had been looking ahead to retirement after 44 years on the staff but is now picketing every morning. "We have to stand up and make a difference, or there aren't going to be nurses to take care of people in the future."

The walkout by about half of the hospital's registered nurses hits the one-year mark Friday, with no end in sight. No talks have been held since the work stoppage began, and none are planned.

So polarized are the two sides, they do not even agree on what issues are behind the strike.

Hospital administrators say it is about money and a union power grab; the nurses say it is about working conditions and quality of care. They say that they are short-handed, overworked and treated shabbily, and that patient care is suffering as a result.

But with the dispute at an impasse, the 506 Teamsters-represented nurses began voting Thursday on whether to stay with the union they joined in 2001.

The conflict has created bitter divisions in Petoskey, an easygoing resort community of 6,100 year-round residents on Lake Michigan. Strike supporters proclaim their allegiance with red-and-white "NMH Negotiate" yard signs.

"I've watched friends, neighbors, become enemies. I've seen the town torn apart over the issue," said Ken Winter, editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review.

Julia Hulderman, a striker from the cardiovascular unit and a 19-year Northern Michigan veteran, said walking out was a last resort for the fed-up nurses.

"We were literally a bunch of dogs that had been kicked by their owner for years and years," Hulderman said.

But emergency room nurse Doretta Anderson, who has spent the last 13 of her 20 years in nursing at Northern Michigan, said she believes striking is inappropriate for life-and-death professions such as hers.

"I've never had any issue where I felt I couldn't stand up and do something about it," she said. "Yes, we have problems. Some days we're just overwhelmed. But can the Teamsters pull nurses out of thin air?"

Petoskey is a choice retreat for the wealthy from Detroit and Chicago. In summer, vacationers and retirees flock to its Victorian cottages and new Bay Harbor resort south of town. Wanting top-notch health care close by, they have donated generously to the century-old, 243-bed hospital, which is undergoing a $37 million expansion that will provide a new ER and cardiac center.

Striking nurses say managers obsessed with cutting costs would not replace outdated equipment and piled ever more work on nurses, brushing aside concerns about the effect on patients. Many nurses quit in disgust, Hulbert said, increasing the pressure on those left behind.

"Our treadmill sped up and sped up," she said.

Such complaints, increasingly common, help explain the nationwide nursing shortage, said Ada Sue Hinshaw, dean of the University of Michigan School of Nursing. About 13 percent of nursing jobs at the typical hospital are vacant, according to the American Hospital Association.

The strikers angered management in July with a newspaper ad asserting that "care is not only inadequate, it's dangerous" at the hospital. "Don't Get Sick in Petoskey," the headline warned.

The hospital's administrators say the union's talk about patient care is a smoke screen for another agenda: forcing all nurses to join and pay Teamsters dues.

Hospital officials insist quality was excellent before the walkout and remains so as nurses from out of town have filled in for the strikers. The hospital claimed vindication last month when the agency that accredits the nation's hospitals gave Northern Michigan a preliminary score of 94, its highest-ever rating. The national average is 92.

Northern Michigan officials likewise deny nurses are overworked or mistreated. The average patient-to-nurse ratio is 3.5 to 1, better than at 90 percent of the nation's hospitals, spokesman Tom Spencer said. (Strikers say nurses in some units handle six to nine patients at once.) Spencer insisted there is no forced overtime, which strikers hotly dispute.

Starting pay is $18 an hour and the average hourly wage is $22 to $25. The sides remain far apart over pay and benefits.

Caught in the middle, local residents just want a solution.

Recovering in the maternity ward after delivering a baby, Robin Stump said her treatment had been fine but lamented that so many "hometown nurses" were gone.

"It seems like both sides could give a little and get this settled," she said.


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