Nurses Association leader: “We still have work to do”


In their new contract, Twin Cities nurses successfully stopped concessions that would have affected patient care, but the effort to achieve safe staffing is not over, the president of the Minnesota Nurses Association said. By an overwhelming margin, MNA members Tuesday ratified a new three-year contract with 14 metro-area hospitals that did not include the nurses’ top priority: specific nurse-patient ratios. Yet the contract campaign did succeed in furthering the goal of improved health care, MNA President Linda Hamilton said in an interview Wednesday.

MNA President Linda Hamilton
MNA President Linda Hamilton leads a rally during the nurses’ contract campaign.

“There’s not a patient out there, there’s not a politician – Republican or Democrat – who doesn’t know the issue,” she said. “We still have some work to do. But patients should know I truly believe the nurses will be there for them. We will fight the fight.”

Instead of a ratio, the new contract strengthens the commitment of hospital management and union nurses to address staffing concerns through workplace Staffing Advisory Committees, Hamilton said. In addition, she said, the agreement prevents hospitals from assigning nurses to work in other facilities without their permission and preserves language in some contracts that allows registered nurses to refuse to take on more patients if their unit is overloaded.

Fighting off these concessions was a victory for patient safety, Hamilton said.

Building the campaign
The union is planning a number of strategies – both internal and external – to continue the campaign for safe staffing, she said. They include:

• Educating nurses to use language in their contract to protect patients.

• Holding regular meetings of the chairs of the Staffing Advisory Committees to discuss progress in the various facilities.

• Releasing more information to the public about unsafe staffing situations in hospitals.

• Providing tools, such as a checklist of questions, for patients and patient advocates to use to demand better care when hospitalized.

• Meeting regularly with elected officials to raise their awareness.

While the recent contract campaign, which began in March, affected only Twin Cities hospitals, the union plans to take its safe staffing message statewide, Hamilton said.

“We will try, every time we’re at the [bargaining] table, because it is the right thing to do,” she said. “We may get it [safe staffing language] in a contract. We’re not going to wait for that to happen. We’ll keep working at the Legislature” for a state law requiring nurse-patient ratios.

An energized membership

The months-long struggle for a contract, which included a one-day walkout June 10, ended just as nurses were preparing to engage in an open-ended strike. The experience was exhausting – and energizing, Hamilton said.

“I’m proud of my nurses,” she said. “We are in a place where we were not before.”

The MNA mobilized its members and took on a prominent role in the labor movement. Its national organization, National Nurses United, also grew in visibility.

Hamilton, who has worked for nearly 30 years as a registered nurse, most of them at Minneapolis Children’s Hospital, has seen many changes in her workplaces.

“Now we are taking care of twice as many patients as when I started and they are sicker,” she said. “We’ve been experiencing a slow speed-up. As a result, people started doubting their own abilities. You don’t want to admit you can’t keep up with the nurse next to you. Then we realized everybody was there.”

In recent months, Hamilton has fielded calls and e-mails from nurses as far away as Texas and Kentucky, all expressing the same concerns about staffing.

Ultimately, the solution to the staffing issue is tied to even bigger questions about health care in the United States and the lack of social justice in general, Hamilton said.

“I would love to see the need for nurses decrease because we have a healthy society,” she said. “But to reduce the number of nurses only to make more money is not acceptable.”