More than 2,200 nurses staged a strike Friday at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Credit: Maxwell Evans/ Block Club Chicago

WOODLAWN — UChicago Medical Center nurses returned to work Wednesday after their strike last Friday led to a five-day lockout, and they’re denying rumors that they intend to strike again before returning to the negotiating table.

Right now, the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNU) and the medical center are scheduled to continue negotiations through a federal mediator Sept. 30 and Oct. 1.

The main sticking point is the ratio of patients to nurses, which nurses claim is too high to ensure quality care. The hospital’s leadership has said the nurses rejected offers that would have “resolved the staffing issue.”

The parties have met about two dozen times since bargaining began in March. The union’s previous contract expired in mid-April.

In an open letter released Tuesday, chief nursing officer Debra Albert accused union leadership of being more interested in striking than reaching a deal. She said “none of the issues were resolved” through last Friday’s strike.

“We haven’t even returned to the bargaining table and union leaders want to order you to strike a second time, in another chapter from their national agenda playbook,” Albert said. “[NNU] is actively and publicly talking about serving another 10-day strike notice on [the medical center] very soon.”

Staff nurse Grazyna Cohen, representing the nurses’ bargaining team, denied Albert’s claims, saying the team would not return to negotiations planning another strike.

The team’s goal is to bargain in good faith and secure a new contract with “safe staffing ratios” as soon as possible, she said.

“I don’t understand why anybody would say something that is not true,” Cohen said. “If anything is a rumor, then it should be verified before being published officially on a university site.”

Strikes require at least 50 percent of the 2,200 nurses in the bargaining unit be present for an in-person vote. Of those voting, 90 percent must approve a strike for it to go through, according to Cohen.

The high threshold ensures striking nurses are not under pressure from national leadership to strike, Cohen said. She added that staffing ratios at the hospital were clearly a “local issue.”

There will be another strike vote if the nurses’ concerns are not addressed, but that “cannot happen” before negotiations continue, Cohen said.

“Everybody’s best interests are for us to be on the job,” she said. “We hope that our absence showed them how much we all need each other.”

Nurses were not immediately available to speak on the work environment as they returned to the hospital Wednesday, a union representative said.

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