Nurse, activist, and co-founder of U-M’s Professional Nurse Council
By Mary Gallagher
Leah Karr is a Registered Nurse at Mott Children’s Hospital who acted as an organizer with the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council for the 2018 contract negotiations with Michigan Medicine.
What made you decide to get involved in the contract negotiations?
We have the opportunity to take amazing care of the kids because we have really good staff ratios, and I wanted those to be maintained. I don’t want to put my license on the line taking care of more patients than I can safely care for, and I don’t want to jeopardize the reputation that I have built for myself and for our unit of being able to spend time with families, hear their concerns and provide education.
What were the reactions of patients and families during the negotiation process?
Toward the end of negotiations, including when we had the informational picket and when there was the vote for authorization of a work stoppage, the patients and families knew what was going on. They would ask us questions, and I would always say that we all just want to be able to provide the best care, and we’re trying to figure out the best way to do that.
What did you think about the final contract?
I think the final contract that was negotiated was very much supportive of the nurses being able to provide good patient care. We have our ratios in writing, we have a lower limit of mandatory overtime that the employer can mandate nurses to work per month. I think it’s a great contract, and I’m really happy with it. To vote to authorize a work stoppage is gut-wrenching. Nobody wants to do that, and it was really tumultuous. To come away from that with a contract that is supportive of nurses I think is really good.
What influenced your decision to vote for the work stoppage?
I became a nurse because I want to provide wonderful care to children and their families when they need it most. I need my employer to be able to protect that care so that I’m able to give all that I need to give to the families. There’s no part of me that wants to not show up for the patients and families, and it was just— gut-wrenching is really the only word I can use for it. I felt like the future of patient care was in danger.
Was there any push-back from fellow nurses or from other hospital employees?
I experienced no personal pushback. There were definitely nurses like me who were in the same boat, feeling hesitant and not happy about having to have the vote (to support a work stoppage). But of the nurses who voted, 94% voted to authorize the work stoppage. So there was definitely a feeling that it was unfortunate but absolutely necessary. The resident physicians are part of a union called the House Officers Association, and they were also in support of us.
What do you see as the role of organized workers in healthcare?
I have never worked for a non-union hospital, and when I speak with my colleagues and friends from nursing school who are at other hospitals, I see that I have a stronger voice in my work. They don’t have limits on how much they can be mandated (regarding patient ratios and overtime). I can’t work more than 16 hours [at a time], and they can only mandate me for 8 [overtime] hours a month right now. That protects my time off, which allows me to rest and come back refreshed. When there are disagreements or communication difficulties in the workplace, I know that I am able to stand up and have a mature face-to-face discussion with whoever I disagree with, because the nurses are valued and respected.