Nurses at 15 Minnesota hospitals voted yesterday to authorize a strike, after union negotiators accused health care executives of refusing to bargain contracts that protect the safety of their patients and address the crisis facing their profession.
“What we are being forced to do is totally against every ethical principal that we have,” Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) President Mary Turner said, choking back tears during a press conference announcing the strike vote. “But we have no choice.”
A strike could put as many as 15,000 nurses on the picket line at 12 hospitals in the Twin Cities and three in Duluth. According to the MNA, it would be one of the largest nursing strikes in U.S. history, and the first time Twin Cities and Twin Ports nurses went on strike together.
Bargaining units are legally obligated to give hospitals 10 days’ notice before any work stoppage.
MNA members have been in bargaining with the hospital systems – Allina Health, M-Health Fairview, Children’s, HealthPartners and North Memorial in the Twin Cities – since March. They have focused their contract campaign on improving patient care by investing in measures to keep hospital nurses at the bedside.
It’s the first round of talks since COVID-19 shocked the health care landscape, and MNA members – in the media, at the Capitol and via workplace actions – have been sounding the alarm about the toll staffing shortfalls are taking on patient care and staff morale.
A report issued by the Minnesota Department of Health earlier this month showed a 33% increase in adverse events in Minnesota hospitals from 2020 to 2021. Union leaders pinned the blame on short staffing and retention issues, noting MNA members’ own reports of unsafe staffing concerns have increased 300% since 2014.
“Our management, our leaders have failed,” said Amy McGlone, a nurse and member of the Children’s Hospital bargaining team. “They have failed us nurses, as well as the patients and families who come through our doors for care… What is happening in our hospitals is not safe and not sustainable.”
As the crisis continues to deepen, even more nurses are considering giving up on the profession or moving to positions away from the bedside, studies suggest.
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) issued a report in June that found 51% of surveyed nurses considered leaving the profession within the next year, and they cited short staffing and moral distress as the driving factors. That constitutes a “public health crisis,” Turner said, and it is a direct consequence of “corporate health care policies pursued by our hospital executives with million-dollar salaries.”
“Our integrity dictates we demand the kind of care that we would want for ourselves, our families and our loved ones – for every single patient that crosses our threshold,” said Meghan Matteson, an acute rehab nurse at Fairview Riverside.
“The best care possible is not receiving emergent care in a hallway. The best care possible is not having to wait hours for a higher level of care – sometimes days. The best care possible is not having nurses with more patients than we can care for safely. Unfortunately, this is our current reality.”
To turn the tide in their profession, Minnesota nurses are seeking new contracts that include wage increases and a seat at the table in decisions about staffing levels in their units.
They also want paid family leave, after many health care workers zeroed out their paid time off while isolating, quarantining or caring for family members affected by the pandemic. At least one hospital system, according to a nurse at the bargaining table, has responded to the request for paid family leave by suggesting nurses buy their own short-term disability insurance.
“Fairview has taken advantage of our goodwill during this pandemic and has highly normalized this chaotic staffing situation that we are currently in,” HealthEast nurse Katie Donner said. “We’ve risked our lives and the health of our families to care for our community. Our community recognizes us, so why won’t Fairview?”
The community may get an opportunity to show its support nurses on the picket line soon, if the strike vote – which drew support from a “supermajority” of nurses who cast ballots – doesn’t prompt hospital executives to get serious about the union’s demands.
“We don’t take this decision lightly,” Turner said. “All 15,000 nurses want to be at the bedside, but we have been driven to this. We have tried to put forward proposals that would bring back nurses to the bedside, but they are not interested. For the safety of our patients, we need to take this action.”
This article first appeared on the Union Advocate.