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15,000 Minnesota nurses hit picket line for 3-day strike

Seeking higher pay and steadier staffing, the nurses’ union says problems with retention and patient care are getting worse while hospital CEOs are making millions.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Monday morning marked the start of a three-day nurses’ strike at 15 hospitals in the Twin Cities and Duluth, Minnesota, with almost 15,000 nurses walking out to protest low pay and understaffing. The union has called it the largest private-sector nurses’ strike in U.S. history. 

The majority of striking nurses – a little over 12,000 – are in Minneapolis, St. Paul and their surrounding suburbs. They are joined by an additional 2,500 nurses at Essentia Health and St. Luke’s Hospital in the northern port city of Duluth and the surrounding area. 

Impacted hospitals have pledged “uninterrupted urgent and emergency care,” and said last week that they planned to keep their operations running normally but would change those plans if necessary. 

Nurses with the Minnesota Nurses’ Association voted to strike in August, giving the hospitals a 10-day window to reach an agreement with the union before nurses gave notice of their intent to strike. That notice came on Sept. 1, triggering another 10-day waiting period before the actual strike. 

Nurses and hospital administration have been at loggerheads over pay proposals and staffing levels, which MNA leadership have said are inextricably linked.

“We are out here, literally, to save our profession,” MNA President Mary Turner said at a picket-line rally Monday outside Children’s Hospital in St. Paul. “Fifty-one percent of us could potentially leave the bedside as of next year. Fifty-one percent, that’s a health crisis.”

“If all we cared about was money, we would be traveling right now,” she said, obliquely referencing the thousands of out-of-state nurses who have come to replace strikers. 

Turner and other MNA members have argued that higher wages and better education opportunities are essential to shore up a workforce devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic. They have also criticized the hospitals for turning down proposals to allow nurses a say in staffing levels. 

The hospitals have offered nurses pay increases between 10% and 12% over three years, according to a statement from the Twin Cities Hospital Group, which represents three of the five metro-area health systems impacted by the strike. Nurses have reduced their opening wage demand of a 39% raise over the three-year contract to between 27% and 30%.

The hospital group said such increases were “not economically feasible or responsible to our community members who would ultimately pay the price,” and that MNA “seems intent on rushing into a strike without first exhausting all options to reach a fair and equitable agreement” by refusing the hospitals’ requests for mediation. 

MNA disputed the idea that paying nurses more would necessarily take away from patient care in a statement issued when the nurses announced their intent to strike. The union pointed to CEO compensation, which tops $1 million annually at all but one of the impacted hospitals and goes as high as $3.5 million at the largest system, M Health Fairview. 

“Nurses are overworked, hospitals are understaffed, and patients are overcharged,” the union wrote. “While hospital CEOs with multi-million-dollar salaries have refused to negotiate with nurses over solutions to the crises of short-staffing, retention and patient care, the problems are getting worse.”

MNA cited studies purporting to show that up to 67% of nurses were thinking about quitting in the next few years and that instances of harm to patients rose dramatically in 2021, in part due to the stresses of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Hospitals have increased hours for non-union nurses and hired traveling nurses to replace the strikers. The Minnesota Board of Nursing said last week that they had received over 7,600 applications for temporary licensure since June 6, chiefly from out-of-state nurses receiving high-pay offers from the impacted hospitals. 

The three-day strike, while limited, could still hit the hospitals where it hurts: a pair of strikes at Allina Health System in 2016 cost the company almost $150 million, leading it to report a loss that year. Those strikes were longer, with one open-ended strike stretching for over a month, but only required the company to hire about 1,000 temporary nurses across five of its over 100 facilities

Nurses have also garnered support from progressive political figures on the state and national levels, with Democratic state Attorney General Keith Ellison making appearances the picket lines, a promise from Congresswoman Ilhan Omar to follow suit, and Vermont senator and former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders tweeting his support. 

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