University of Chicago Medical Center prepares for nursing strike after negotiation talks break down

The University of Chicago Medical Center is making final preparations for its first-ever nursing strike after talks between the medical center and the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNOC/NNU) broke down late Wednesday.

About 2,200 NNOC/NNU-represented nurses are set to strike at 7 a.m. Friday, Sept. 20.

“We’re disheartened that we had to get to this point,” said Sharon O’Keefe, University of Chicago Medical Center President. “We worked long and hard negotiating with the help of a federal mediator and had hoped union leadership would meet us half way. We now have to focus our efforts on safely operating our hospitals and caring for the patients who depend on us.”

UCMC went on full bypass late Wednesday ahead of the strike, asking ambulances to take patients to other hospitals in the region.

The 618-bed academic medical center has contracted with hundreds of highly skilled, experienced replacement workers, who began arriving in Chicago from across the country this week to begin orientation. They will continue serving patients in the medical center and work to maintain normal operations at its outpatient clinics and pharmacy.

Because of concurrent nursing strikes called by NNOC/NNU at a dozen hospitals in California, Arizona and Florida, the medical center has been able to retain fewer replacement workers than initially planned. In the interest of ensuring that the medical center is fully staffed to meet the needs of all remaining patients, UCMC has taken the following steps:

  • Putting both the hospital’s pediatric and adult emergency departments on bypass
  • Placing both Level 1 pediatric and adult trauma programs on diversion
  • Limiting virtually all transfers from community hospitals
  • Temporarily closing a number of inpatient units
  • Rescheduling some elective procedures
  • Transferring patients on a case-by-case basis to other facilities

“We need to do the right thing for our patients, and that involves making very tough decisions about the services we can provide at this time,” said Dr. Stephen Weber, the medical center’s Chief Medical Officer. “To ensure their needs can be safely met, a network of other high-quality hospitals in the region is helping us care for our patients.”

Both pediatric and adult emergency departments continue to treat walk-in patients. The medical center is encouraging patients and families who are coming to UCMC locations during the strike to allow extra time for their appointments or visits.

UCMC has been preparing for the strike for months as part of its business continuity and emergency management plan. After receiving a strike notification last week, the medical center activated its Hospital Incident Command System (HICS), which helps U.S. hospitals manage events that may disrupt normal operations. HICS ensures UCMC is prepared and equipped to serve patients for the duration of the strike.

The NNOC/NNU and the Medical Center have been negotiating since the spring to try to reach agreement on a new contract for the 2,200 nurses represented by the union. The union’s previous contract expired in mid-April. Both sides have been meeting with a federal mediator since the union called the strike.  Updates on bargaining can be found at

As the impact of the pending walkout grew, Medical Center officials disputed the union’s media statements about its reasons for calling the strike.

“The union leaders’ conduct in ordering our nurses to walk out on our patients is simply reckless and irresponsible,” said Debra Albert, Chief Nursing Officer and Senior Vice President, Patient Care Services. “The strike has little to do with what’s happened during negotiations. 

“Union leaders claim they are striking based on staffing,” Albert said. “But today in our negotiations, UCMC made a major proposal that addressed the union’s concerns and would have resolved the staffing issue. But the union decided to go on strike anyway.”

According to the Medical Center:

  • Its NNU-represented nurses are already among the highest paid in Chicago and Illinois.
  • Its nurse staffing levels are the best in the state and city – a fact that has been validated by staffing data and third-party evaluations.
  • The union is purposely distorting the issue of staffing complaints in its media claims – the number of staffing complaints filed by union members represents less than one-half of 1 percent of all staffing assignments made.
  • The Medical Center is one of the safest in the nation as measured by the watchdog Leapfrog Group which has given UCMC 15 consecutive grades of “A” for patient safety.

“We prize the contribution of our nurses, who are the backbone of our medical center,” Albert said. “Unfortunately, this strike was called to advance the union’s national publicity agenda at the expense of the people of Chicago’s South Side, and our nurses who serve them.”