The Minnesota Nurses Association can call a strike with 10 days notice. Photo by Max Nesterak/minnesotadigest.com.
Union nurses at 15 hospitals in the Twin Cities and Duluth area voted to authorize a strike on Monday, escalating pressure on hospital executives as the two sides remain far apart on staffing levels and wages.
The strike authorization, which required a two-thirds vote, allows the Minnesota Nurses Association to call some 15,000 nurses away from the bedside and to the picket line for any duration with 10 days notice.
“We’re ready to fight. We’re ready to put patients before profits. What happens next is up to the CEOs,” said Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association and an intensive care nurse at North Memorial Health Hospital, during a Tuesday news conference.
The vote sets up what could be a repeat of a strike by Allina nurses in 2016, which lasted for 37 days — just a day shy of the state’s longest nursing strike in 1984.
“We are disappointed the union chose to take a strike authorization vote instead of working towards a fair and sustainable contract. A strike does not benefit anyone and will only further delay reaching a settlement at the bargaining table,” Allina spokeswoman Conny Bergerson wrote in a statement.
Negotiations have been particularly tense since June, when labor contracts expired between the nurses and health systems, including Allina, HealthPartners, Children’s Minnesota, Fairview Health Services, North Memorial, Essentia and St. Luke’s.
The nurses launched a public relations campaign with commercials blasting the seven-figure salaries of health executives and calling “greed” a “health crisis of unprecedented proportions.”
In a news release announcing the strike authorization, the nurses union included the compensation of the CEOs of the health systems they’re negotiating with and how they compare to the average nurse’s salary.
Hospital representatives point out that some executives took a pay cut during the pandemic — although they still realized substantial gains in recent years.
For example, Fairview Health Services CEO James Hereford received $2.62 million in total compensation in 2020. While that’s 26% less than what he received the year before, his 2020 compensation was still up 40% from 2018.
Hospital representatives also point out that executive compensation isn’t part of union negotiations with the nurses. But the union is confident that drawing attention to pay disparity between executives and nurses will help them win the public’s support as they seek wage increases of more than 30% over three years.
The hospitals have countered with raises of around 10% over three years, which the nurses have balked at given that soaring inflation has more than eliminated the modest 2-3% increases they received each year over the last contract.
Melissa Burlaga, a spokeswoman for St. Luke’s Duluth, said the hospital will continue bargaining in good faith and again called on the union to agree to inviting a mediator to help in negotiations.
“We believe our offer of a 10.25% wage increase over 3 years is fair and reasonable. MNA continues asking for a 36.5% wage increase over 3 years,” Burlaga wrote.
The union has sought to focus attention on staffing levels, rather than their wage proposals.
Nurses say hospitals are dangerously understaffed, leading to more patient injuries like bed sores and falls. Turner pointed to a recent report from the Minnesota Department of Health that shows adverse health events were up 33% in 2021 from 2020.
Last year, nurses filed nearly 8,000 reports of unsafe staffing levels, an increase of 300% from 2014, Turner said.
Nurses accuse hospital leaders of taking advantage of their compassion for patients to continue working — through more than two years of the pandemic — even as they became responsible for more and more patients.
They say the problem will only become worse unless hospitals improve pay and working conditions, pointing to a recent survey from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute that found a little more than half of nurses are considering leaving the profession in the next year, mainly because of what they say are unsafe staffing levels.
Hospital representatives say they’re working on contingency plans to continue providing care should the nurses go on strike.
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