Nurses plan picketing as contract talks near critical deadline


Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” rang out over the loudspeaker of their union headquarters Tuesday morning, as Twin Cities nurses gathered to make signs they will carry on informational picket lines the union plans to stage outside hospitals across the metro area the next two weeks. Frustrated with the lack of progress since negotiations with six Twin Cities-based hospital systems began March 16, union nurses hope their public display of solidarity will encourage their employers to take their contract demands – most of which focus on patient safety – more seriously. 

If the hospital systems – Health East, Allina, Methodist, Children’s, North Memorial and Fairview – don’t get the message, though, nurses say they stand ready to strike.

“We have a fight on our hands,” said Laurie Bahr, an RN with 16 years of experience in the cardiovascular intensive care unit at Abbott Northwestern Hospital. “It’s frustrating because as nurses, we know how important what we’re proposing is.

“The challenge is trying to get the hospitals to look past their bottom lines.”

The nurses’ current contract will expire May 31, and the union has scheduled a vote May 19 to either ratify a new contract or authorize a strike, which could begin as soon as June 1. The nurses’ actions also include a petition drive.


Minnesota nurses make signs for informational picketing
Melissa Buganski, an RN in the emergency room at Unity Hospital, crafts a sign for informational picketing.

Photo by Michael Moore

Patient safety first

Members of the Minnesota Nurses Association have made patient safety the key issue of their contract campaign. Among their top priorities in negotiations is contract language that would require hospitals to maintain a safe level of nurse staffing.

“The numbers don’t lie,” said MNA President Linda Hamilton. “If you don’t have enough nurses working, people are going to die when they don’t need to. So we’ll keep saying it until we’re blue in the face: Safe staffing saves lives.”

The nurses also are seeking to ensure hospitals have proper equipment and planning in place to protect patients in the event of a natural disaster or disease outbreaks, such as the H1N1 flu virus.

The nurses’ pension fund also is at issue in the negotiations. All six hospitals contribute to the same fund, which enables nurses to switch employers without jeopardizing their pensions.

According to the MNA, funding the nurses’ pension costs hospitals about $80 million annually, which is slightly more than 1 percent of hospitals’ total revenue.

Hamilton said the hospitals have made clear their intent to cut pension funding by a third. Such a deep cut, she added, would revert nurses’ pension benefits to what they were in 1968.

“To ask us to retire and support our families on a standard of living like that would require a time machine to pull off,” Hamilton said. “We need a livable pension plan to ensure that we can retire when we’re ready and that our spouses and children have the support they need from us.”

Are hospitals stalling?

So far, the hospitals, which are negotiating independently with the union – except when it comes to the pension fund - have been cool to the nurses’ requests for increased patient safety.

In fact, according to Bahr, who serves on the union’s negotiating committee for the Allina system, the hospitals are “stalling” and misrepresenting their proposals to nurses.

“At this point the hospitals really don’t show any interest in what we’re proposing,” Bahr said. “They’ve been dismissive about what we’ve had to say. They really are disengaged at the table.”

Bahr added that the hospitals seem not to value the input of nurses when it comes to patient care.

“They want discretion. They want flexibility. They want to be able to decide what the best scenario is even though they don’t work at the bedside, they don’t know what it is to care for someone,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important to be engaged.

“It’s going to take every single nurse, all 12,000 of us, to make them hear us, which is unfortunate for patients.”

Demonstration of solidarity

The informational pickets will give nurses a chance not only to show their solidarity, but also to show the support they have from the greater community. The union’s “We Care For You” signs are popping up in yards throughout Twin Cities neighborhoods.

Nurses, Bahr said, are taking notice.

“We’ve had some great support from the community,” Bahr said. “It’s very empowering. It really supports that we are doing the right thing here.”

The first day of picketing, Thursday, May 6, will focus on hospitals in Minneapolis and Coon Rapids. Picketing will take place from 1:30 to 5 p.m. at Abbott Northwestern, 80 East 28th St., and Children’s Hospital, 2525 Chicago Ave. S., both in Minneapolis, and at Mercy Hospital, 4050 Coon Rapids Blvd. NW, Coon Rapids.

On May 12, the nurses’ pickets will come to downtown St. Paul, outside Children’s and United hospitals, 333 N. Smith Ave., from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m.

The action coincides both with the end of National Nurses Week and the birthday of Florence Nightingale. But the primary focus of the event, of course, will be on winning a fair contract that protects patients.

“These pickets will give us a chance to talk to more people and explain what it is we’re fighting for, that this has to do with their loved ones,” Bahr said. “We are prepared to step up here, and we want you to know what’s going on and that the hospitals need to listen to us.”

Michael Moore edits The Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. See more photos as his Facebook gallery.