Last week, more than 800 nurses with the Illinois Nurses Association (INA) walked off the job at the University of Illinois Hospital (UIH), joined by another 4,000 workers represented by SEIU Local 73. The INA’s seven-day planned strike ended last weekend, and the nurses are returning to work without a settled contract. But, that doesn’t mean they see the fight as over.
A member of Chicago DSA’s Labor Branch, Carlos Enriquez, interviewed Kristen Perez, a rank-and-file INA member, on the picket line and they discussed key issues around the strike and how nurses are feeling as they head back to work.
One of the INA’s main slogans for this strike is #SafetyInNumbers, referring to the demand for safe staffing levels in the hospital. Why did this stand out as important and how did this issue galvanize you and your coworkers?
As nurses, our number one issue is patient safety. I know to be able to keep myself safe as a nurse, I need to be able to keep my patients safe first and that’s what increased staffing is really about. There are a lot of demands on you as a nurse in a lot of different areas. Patient safety ensures my safety, because when they are happy and healthy, it means no one is falling behind, and no one’s family is screaming in my face. And that makes for the best working conditions for me and safest working conditions for my coworkers.
Leading into the strike, UIH was essentially stonewalling on many of these key demands, but, since walking out, we’ve seen some movement at the bargaining table. Can you talk a little bit about the position the administration has taken and how they have been treating workers and the union since the strike?
I think they really made their best effort to bust up our union, and to undermine the conditions we’ve established here at the hospital. In fact, there are many administrators here who were brought in to do just that. And you know, they didn’t know who they were dealing with, because the union is not playing around. Nurses deal with belligerent, violent, out of control people every day. We are tough. An administrator who thinks she can bust up my union has another thing coming.
I think they thought that we were going to back down. They were wrong. We haven’t been on strike in the 45-year history of this hospital, but every single nurse in this hospital was willing to go on strike over this contract. We had a resounding yes vote for the strike, more than 90 percent. Everyone really was willing to come out here to demand the things we need for our patients’ safety and our safety. It has been super powerful, and throughout the process we’ve become a team in a way we’ve never been before.
In many ways this is a trailblazing, historic strike for this hospital and for this union. I imagine it’s had a big impact on the workers and the dynamics within the union. Can you maybe share some lessons you’ve learned the past week? And things you and the other nurses will bring back into the workplace?
First off, I just feel way, crazy, super proud. I’ve never seen nurses show up for each other in the way that we have with COVID and this strike. We have solidified ourselves as a really badass union!
I think it actually started even before the strike. With COVID we needed to be able to depend on each other. The administration really left us dangling out on a limb in so many ways. With limited PPE and low staffing, we learned to depend on each and to trust each other, and we’ve brought those lessons to the strike and solidified them.
Unity and teamwork is everything in nursing, and this has helped us build that up even more. Now, people are not afraid to speak up about their conditions, they aren’t afraid to get involved with the union, and they are ready to step up to the plate and defend themselves and their coworkers.
Especially with how the strike has allowed everyone to get to know each other. Before, people across departments didn’t really interact. But, since being on strike, walking this picket line together for the last seven days, everyone knows everyone’s name and has built trust with each other. We have plans to all stay in touch and continue building these relationships and this team. And the administration should be cognizant of that, because this has just made us stronger.
With the planned seven-day strike over, the INA is headed back into work, but contract bargaining is still ongoing. Do you think you and your fellow nurses would be willing to walk out again if needed?
If they fall short on our three main issues around staffing, PPE, and pay—yes. The nurses here are committed. These issues are priorities for us. Now, we are closer to reaching these priorities than ever in the past, and we aren’t going to let them go.
If we don’t get these issues guaranteed in our contract, then there is no reason for us to keep working here, or building 30-year careers here. We can go work somewhere else and get more sleep.
One of the most unique and powerful things about this moment is that both the INA and SEIU 73 are out on strike together. What has it been like having both unions out fighting together?
Going out with 73 has been fantastic. In one part, it’s just an amazing logistical decision that gives us way more leverage. It is super powerful because it is universally, the entire hospital showing that they are fed up with the way administration is handling things. We are saying together that there are serious safety concerns here and that, as healthcare workers, is our number one concern.
If the administration isn’t able to provide safe conditions for us, then they are wrong in so many ways—morally, ethically, legally. We all came together to show that it isn’t acceptable anymore. They thought they could get away with it, but we aren’t playing.