Minnesota nurses call off strike, claim ‘historic victory’ in contract campaign

Hundreds of nurses marched for a fair contract in downtown Minneapolis Nov. 2.

Members of the Minnesota Nurses Association called off a planned three-week strike Dec. 6 after reaching tentative agreements on new contracts covering 15,000 nurses at seven hospital systems in the Twin Cities and Duluth areas.

The proposed three-year contracts, if ratified, would raise metro nurses’ wages by 18% and, according to the union, would give nurses “unprecedented” say in how staffing levels are set in their hospital units.

Union nurses had vowed to strike if hospitals did not agree to address chronic understaffing, seeking compensation increases to keep nurses at the bedside and contract language to ensure nurses have a voice in staffing decisions that affect patient care and workplace safety.

They got both, according to MNA President Mary Turner, a nurse in the North Memorial hospital ICU. She called the tentative agreements a “historic win for nurses and patients.”

“For years, hospital executives have been pushing nurses out of the profession by under-staffing our units and undervaluing our nurses,” Turner said. “This tentative agreement will help to keep nurses at the bedside, where we will keep fighting to oppose the corporate health care policies which threaten our hospital systems and the care our patients deserve.”

A profession in crisis

MNA members held firm to their patient-centered demands through bargaining that dragged on for nine months. They stood together after their previous contracts expired over the summer and through a three-day strike in September, the largest private-sector nurses strike in U.S. history.

After voting in November to strike for a second time, nurses said the stakes were too high to settle for anything less than contracts that address the crisis of care in their facilities, citing unsustainable conditions that risk becoming the “new normal” for staff, patients and communities.

“Time is up,” Abbott Northwestern nurse Angela Becchetti said. “You need to put staffing on the table. You need to protect your nurses. Ultimately, we’re here to protect our patients.”

A three-week strike over the holidays would have forced hospitals, already reliant on highly-compensated “traveling” nurses to cover staffing shortfalls, to hire even more as scabs.

“They are paying those nurses an obscene amount of money when all we want is staffing,” Becchetti said. “Put that money that you are paying nurses to work during a strike into staffing, and you won’t be having a strike. If you fix staffing, you will help retain your nurses.”

Unlike the wage increases, which the union hailed as its largest in two decades, staffing gains made by nurses in bargaining vary by tentative agreement, according to MNA.

The union said language in some proposed contracts would prevent management from reducing staff levels without reaching a “consensus” with nurses on the decision. Other language would protect nurses from discipline if they raise concerns about unsafe assignments, or identify specific outcomes that would trigger labor-management staffing reviews.

Nurses also won increases in pay for preceptors, who help train new nurses, and for charge nurses. Several tentative agreements also included new workplace safety protections.

Since negotiations with the hospitals began last spring, Minnesota nurses have framed their contract campaign as a fight to save the profession.

Hospitals across the U.S. are struggling to attract and retain bedside nurses – a trend local nurses say began before the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospital executives looking to pad their bottom lines brushed aside nurses’ documented reports of unsafe staffing levels, which soared by 300% between 2014 and 2021.

Nurses took the lobby of the US Bank corporate offices, calling out the company’s vice chair of consumer and business banking, Tim Welsh, vice chair of the Allina Health board.

Nurses say short-staffed hospital units are more susceptible to adverse events that put their patients ­– and their nusing licenses – at risk. A report issued by the Minnesota Department of Health in August backed up those claims, showing a 33% increase in adverse events in Minnesota hospitals from 2020 to 2021.

Trischa Ochsner, a nurse at Minneapolis Children’s Hospital, said an autumn surge in pediatric respiratory illnesses, coupled with her hospital’s “dire” staffing situation, has created a crisis of care with “no end in sight.” Some families, she said, are forced to wait hours for bed space to open.

“While our leadership gets to remain nameless in an office or working from home or on a golf course, we keep coming back day after day to the same horrific staffing,” Ochsner said. “And at the negotiation table their answers remain unchanged. They do not want nurses involved in the decision-making process, yet their decisions are leading to the decline and failure of a system.”

Frustration with hospital CEO’s – and the executives who populate their nonprofit boards – boiled over in November, when hundreds of MNA members marched through downtown Minneapolis, calling out board members and their employers for driving a corporate approach to health care.

The labor community stood shoulder to shoulder with nurses throughout their contract campaign, St. Paul Regional Labor Federation President Kera Peterson said.

“Our federation and our affiliate unions were fully prepared to be on the picket line with nurses who stuck together for the contract they deserve – and their patients deserve,” Peterson said.

Staffing campaign heads to Capitol

Although they avoided a strike, nurses insisted their fight to put patients over profits was not over. They pledged to be at the Capitol this winter to lobby in support of legislation that would require Minnesota hospitals to set limits on the number of patients a nurse in each of its units can care for, set by staffing committees with equal participation from management and caregivers.

“With new staffing language and fair wage increases, nurses are empowered to continue the fight to protect care in our communities,” MNA Vice President Chris Rubesch said.

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