MN nurses double down on staffing demands with historic, three-day strike

Striking nurses picket outside Children’s Hospital in St. Paul.

Members of the Minnesota Nurses Association returned to work Sept. 15 after a record-breaking, three-day strike at hospitals in the Twin Cities and Duluth that energized their fight for contracts that put patients before profits.

Believed to be the largest nursing strike in Minnesota history, the walkout covered 15,000 union members and brought picket lines to 15 hospitals statewide, including United and Children’s hospitals in St. Paul.

Last-ditch contract negotiations between the nurses’ bargaining committees and seven hospital systems extended into the weekend before the strike began. But hospitals refused to budge on a key demand for union members: a voice in determining staffing levels in their units.

Staffing shortfalls that limited hospitals’ capacity during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic are threatening to become the norm, nurses on the picket line said. They want more power to act when shortstaffing becomes unsafe for patients – and to refuse unsafe assignments that could jeopardize their careers.

MNA President Mary Turner said hospitals have disciplined nurses for refusing assignments they believed would put patient safety at risk. “We want assurances that we can use our intelligence and our education and our assessment skills to know whether our assignment is safe or not,” she said.

But contract proposals that would include nurses’ voice in staffing decisions – like one measure that would require support from 51% of nurses in a ward before any change to its staffing levels – have gone nowhere, according to union members at the bargaining tables.

“They don’t want to even begin to talk to us about staffing,” United emergency department nurse Brittany Livaccari said. “They keep telling us, ‘We will never give operational control to the nurses.’ But we’re not asking for operational control. We’re asking to be heard, we’re asking to protect our licenses and we’re asking to protect our patients.

“We know that the care we’ve been having to give inside this hospital since the pandemic isn’t what the community deserves. The community deserves better, and that’s what we’re asking for.”

Union nurses are also seeking significant economic increases throughout the three-year contract. Nurses say raises are needed to recruit and retain bedside professionals, prevent staffing shortfalls and keep pace with inflation. They also want family leave benefits, after many burned through their paid time off in quarantine or isolation during the COVID-19 outbreak.

But hospital administrators seized on those demands in the media and launched a joint a public-relations campaign to smear nurses as greedy and out of touch.

It rankled nurses like Melissa Koll, who works at Children’s campus in St. Paul. Her hospital system has lost 500 nurses in the last three years due to the “distress of no longer being able to provide the care with quality your children deserve,” she said.

Nurses who remain at Children’s have filed 3,500 reports documenting their concerns over the safety of staffing scenarios on their floors – more than any other hospital system in the state.

“The hospitals would like you to think this all about the money,” Koll said. “That’s simply not true.”

Union leaders acknowledged their economic demands are part of a give and take at the bargaining table, and they could come down if hospitals agreed to put staffing language into their contracts.

“If all we cared about was money, we would be out there traveling right now,” said Turner, an ICU nurse at North Memorial hospital in Robbinsdale, referring to the highly compensated temporary nurses that fill staffing shortfalls in hospitals around the country. “We are out here literally to save our profession.”

Several hospitals, however, canceled bargaining sessions scheduled with their nurses after the strike began Sept. 12, and they reiterated their call for the MNA to agree to bring a federal mediator into the talks.

Turner said mediators are appropriate to help get negotiations over the finish line when two sides are close to an agreement, and that isn’t the case at Minnesota hospitals yet.

“Once the mediator comes in, [hospital administrators] don’t face us across the table anymore,” Turner said. “In my mind, that means they never wanted to hear our stories of unsafe staffing. They never wanted to face their nurses.”

Nurses in the Twin Cities have been working without a contract since May 31. Contracts for nurses in the Duluth area expired June 30.

Trackbacks

  1. […] trademark red radiated from picket lines outside Twin Cities hospitals during the union’s three-day strike Sept. 12-14, but nurses were far from […]

  2. […] (MNA) for fighting to put patients over profits in their current contract campaign. Some 15,000 hospital nurses in Duluth and the Twin Cities staged a three-day strike last week, the largest private-sector nursing strike in U.S. […]

  3. […] systems were among those affected by a historic, three-day strike by 15,000 members of the Minnesota Nurses Association earlier this month. Like nurses fighting for contracts that put patients over profits, mental […]

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