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The Union Experience as a Resident-Physician and Future Radiologist
A radiologist-in-training fights for the rights of his fellow residents and comes out with excellent results!
Contract negotiations are difficult and time consuming. Whether bargaining over the price of a car or negotiating a three-year contract valued over 100 million dollars per year that affects over 1200 physicians, emotions run high and tempers may flare. I recently participated in the latter as a member of the contract negotiations team representing the resident physician union at the University of Michigan. Regardless of pro-union or anti-union sentiments, readers should agree that we are fervently pro-physician. I am honored to have had the opportunity to negotiate the best possible contract for my fellow resident physicians, all of whom work tirelessly for the health of their patients.
The University of Michigan House Officers Association (UM HOA) is one of the oldest and largest resident physician unions in the country. After a four-year arbitration that ultimately made its way to the Michigan state court of appeals, the UM HOA was granted exclusive bargaining rights to represent all resident physicians in the hospital in 1974. The most recent HOA collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was slated for renewal in July 2017. The entire CBA was to be renegotiated, from the most mundane language “clean up” to bargaining over the 110-million-dollar yearly compensation package.
When the HOA asked for residents interested in contract negotiations to volunteer, I immediately asked to participate. The opportunity to negotiate a contract of this magnitude is a rare opportunity. I was also fresh out of the 2016 Radiology Leadership Institute annual leadership summit. At the summit, we studied various negotiations strategies, interest-based bargaining techniques, and practiced these strategies in small groups. I was ready to put my skills to practice.
We developed a list of the most important issues for negotiation by polling the UM HOA membership. The most important issues to address in these negotiations for our residents were salary and paternity leave. The yearly salary increases in the last bargaining agreement did not keep up with the combination of inflation and the rapidly rising cost of living in Ann Arbor. Additionally, the majority of our membership felt that the current paternity leave of four days was insufficient.
We encountered many obstacles throughout the course of the six-month contract negotiations. These ranged from inadequate preparation to lack of trust between negotiation teams. Although some of these barriers were easier to overcome than others, all of them resulted in inefficiencies that could have been avoided.
Insufficient preparation was an all-too-common problem during negotiations. The CBA is a 60-page complicated legal document that requires thorough preparation to understand. When individuals weren’t prepared for the bargaining session, unnecessary time was spent educating them on issues that they should have already been well aware of. This problem was not limited to either bargaining team. Unfortunately, this cost us valuable time that would have been better used for actual negotiations.
As negotiations progressed, communication and trust eroded between members of the bargaining teams. Multiple issues were discussed where compromise seemed impossible. Unsurprisingly, compromise seemed most unlikely regarding salary increases. As more and more of these seemingly insurmountable issues presented themselves, rapport between individuals began to degrade. This was one of the most difficult barriers to deal with during negotiations, and unfortunately was never completely overcome. Nevertheless, the HOA team stayed focused on our goal of representing our members’ interests, and both teams understood the importance of completing negotiations prior to the expiration of the previous contract.
Ultimately, in spite of many obstacles, the HOA was able to secure excellent salary increases and benefits for our hardworking membership. We were successful by maintaining firm in our position and by finding common ground with the university whenever possible. The total yearly increases to our salaries are worth greater than three times what the hospital initially offered. We were also able to increase parental leave including increasing paternity leave from four to 14 days.
The long stressful hours and difficult conversations during these contract negotiations were eventually rewarded with a collective bargaining agreement that the resident physicians at the University of Michigan deserve. Participating in these contract negotiations was an eye-opening and meaningful journey. I learned a great deal about my own strengths and weaknesses and definitely improved upon many critical negotiating skills. It is now abundantly clear to me that it is our responsibility as physicians to represent one another. We must demand fair compensation and fair treatment for our knowledge, skill, and hard work. If we neglect this responsibility, physician and non-physician administrators will gladly decide what we deserve at our expense.
By Elias Taxakis, President Elect of the University of Michigan House Officers Association, radiology resident at The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and Michigan Radiological Society RFS President