Nurses from five Twin Cities hospital systems voted yesterday to ratify union contracts that will protect their pension and health benefits and provide 2 percent raises in each of the next three years.
The new contracts won’t go into effect for more than four months. Negotiations between the Minnesota Nurses Association and the hospitals – Children’s, Fairview, HealthEast, North Memorial and Methodist – proceeded quickly after the two sides agreed to wages-only bargaining.
The process appeared similarly routine for nurses filing in and out of the northeast Minneapolis hotel where the MNA staged balloting. But for one Fairview Southdale nurse, casting her ballot was a selfie-worthy experience.
“I took tons of pictures and sent them to my mom,” Emma Sonney said after participating in her first union-contract vote. “I’d never been a union member before I took this job two months ago. So it’s pretty exciting.”
A fifth-generation nurse born and raised in Wisconsin, Sonney relocated to Minnesota last year after reading an article that ranked the state’s working conditions for nurses second in the U.S.
The move paid off when Sonney landed a job in Southdale’s perianesthesia unit. She was surprised to find nursing scrubs and a locker provided, as well as supervisors who insisted she take breaks and eight-hour shifts that ended on schedule.
Already, her wages are higher than her father’s, even though he’s been working as a registered nurse since finishing his military service.
For Sonney, the choice between working in a strong union state like Minnesota or a Right to Work state like Wisconsin is an easy one.
“There’s no advocacy in Wisconsin anymore, whether you’re a nurse or someone else,” she said. “When I get to work, I want to know I’m going to be at least somewhat protected. That’s what a union contract provides.”
Strong union contracts protect patients too, MNA President Mary Turner said, by empowering nurses to speak up when they see conditions that undermine patient care, like unsafe staffing levels.
Safe staffing was the biggest sticking point in negotiations between nurses and Twin Cities hospitals in 2010, when MNA members briefly went on strike for safe patient care. Nurses eventually won contract language establishing site-based, labor-management committees focused on the issue.
“We really thought our hospitals were going to step up and work with us on staffing,” Turner said. “We’ve been trying to move things forward in our collaborative committees, but things seem to be only getting worse.”
Safe patient care remains the top priority, Turner said, but nurses are using their collective voice to advocate for safe staffing levels at the Capitol rather than at the negotiating table. Last year, nurses turned in more than 2,000 “Concern for Safe Staffing” forms to state regulators during the union’s annual lobbying day.
Meanwhile, the shift in focus has freed MNA negotiators to focus on protecting and building on the benefits and working conditions that make Minnesota a destination for job-seeking nurses like Sonney.
“Everything in our contract, nurses before us have worked extremely hard to get,” Turner said. “We don’t take that lightly.”
The newly approved contracts cover about 7,000 nurses in the Twin Cities. MNA also represents about 5,000 nurses who work in facilities owned by Allina Health, which opted out of metro-wide talks.
Negotiations between nurses and Allina management will begin at a later date, according to the union.