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Michigan Nurses Fight Red-Shirt Ban Amid Labor Talks

Three nurses claim in court that University of Michigan hospital administrators have banned red T-shirts showing support for their union, in violation of their rights to free expression and association.

DETROIT (CN) – Three nurses claim in court that University of Michigan hospital administrators have banned red T-shirts showing support for their union, in violation of their rights to free expression and association.

The union, Michigan Nurses Association, joined the nurses in claiming that the university hospital - recently rebranded as Michigan Medicine - is violating their civil rights under the First and 14th Amendments.

The 21-page complaint filed Tuesday in Detroit federal court says that officials prohibited the red T-shirts after nurses entered into contract negotiations earlier this year, citing a dress code that bans political apparel.

In the past, however, officials have allowed nurses to wear pins, buttons and T-shirts supporting everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to victims of domestic violence to Democratic U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, according to the lawsuit.

“In applying a vague and discriminatory apparel policy, the defendants have violated, and continue to violate, plaintiffs’ and other MNA-represented nurses’ freedom of speech and association under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Defendants also are violating the nurses’ rights under the due process and equal protection clauses as applied under the Fourteenth Amendment,” the complaint states.

Represented by Andrew Nickelhoff with the Detroit law firm Sachs Waldman, the nurses are asking a judge to declare the red T-shirt ban unconstitutional and issue an injunction that allows them to wear shirts, apparel and gear with pro-union messages.

The nurses have been in contract negotiations with the hospital since January and have been unable to reach a new collective-bargaining agreement to replace the one that expired in June. They say they want better pay and working conditions and are fighting to eliminate staff shortages, as well as cuts to retirement and other benefits.

Michigan Medicine spokeswoman Mary Masson said Tuesday that the university hospital, which employs 5,700 nurses, did not violate the First Amendment during contract negotiations and that it would “vigorously defend” against the allegations.

“We remain opposed to the union's efforts to bring labor negotiations into patient care areas,” Masson wrote in an email.

The dress-code dispute began in May, according to court records, when nurses showed up to work wearing red T-shirts with the message, “Fighting for a Fair Contract for the good of nurses and patients.” Their managers and supervisors warned them to remove the shirts, cover them or turn them inside out.

In response, named plaintiff and registered nurse Bret Kelly redesigned the T-shirt, blocking out the offending words “fighting” and “fair contract” to create the new message: “Nurses for the good of Nurses and patients.”

Michigan Nurses Association claims hospital officials again threatened to discipline nurses who come to work in the new shirts.

The union's executive director, John Karebian, said in a statement that administrators are violating the nurses’ civil rights.

“Anyone who thinks our members can be scared into silence doesn’t know much about nurses or the nursing profession,” Karebian said.

The union said Tuesday that its members would vote this week to consider whether to consider a work stoppage as they negotiate for a new contract for nurses working at university hospitals, clinics and other facilities.

Nurses have filed four labor complaints with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission claiming that university administrators are refusing to bargain in good faith and have changed working hours and shifts over the union's objections.

Michigan Medicine says that it has offered nurses a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise, and six weeks’ maternal and parental leave. Addressing the union’s concerns over staffing shortages, Masson said that Michigan Medicine’s staff-to-patient ratios were in the top 2 percent in the country.

“We accomplished this without any contractual requirement to do so because excellent nurse staffing supports excellent patient outcomes. We remain committed to providing this level of staffing,” Masson wrote.

Nurses Corey Foster and April Smith joined Kelly as named plaintiffs.

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