Thousands of Minnesota nurses ready to strike for safe staffing and respect

On August 22, over 100 people participated in the first-ever picket at Hennepin County Medical Center hosted by the Minnesota Nurses Association, an affiliate of National Nurses United. The picket was attended by members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. 

Nurses in the Twin Cities and Twin Ports have been working without contracts because hospital executives refuse to address long-standing issues with short-staffing, retention and quality patient care. Nurses have been negotiating with hospital leadership since March to acquire fair contracts that force CEOs with multi-million dollar salaries to put patients before profit. 

As the CEOs dug in their heels throughout the five months of negotiations, MNA members overwhelmingly voted to authorize a potential strike of 15,000 nurses. The strike vote covers nurses working at 15 hospitals across seven hospital systems. If it happens, it will be one of the largest nursing strikes in U.S. history. 

More and more nurses are choosing to leave the patient bedside as burnout overtakes this underpaid, understaffed and underappreciated workforce, resulting in increased adverse events and worse patient outcomes. In fact, retention of nurses has been a major issue since the start of the pandemic. 

Hennepin Healthcare’s MNA tri-chair Jeremy Olson-Ehlert reported in an interview at the picket that nurses have been waiting for hospital executives to safely staff Minnesota hospital systems for years. He stated, “[hospitals] say they’re hiring, but [nurses] leave quicker than we can keep them.” Perhaps this is because the current pay ratio between Minnesota hospital executives and nurses is 40 to 1. According to Senator John Hoffman, one Minnesota CEO took a 90% raise in his salary while hospital systems offered nurses a mere 4% increase in theirs. 

Some emergency departments have been working with just 50% of their nursing staff and are forced to continue accepting new patients even if there are no rooms to place them. Many people are left lying in hallways as nurses scramble to manage the onslaught of patients. Olson-Ehlert continued by saying, “the biggest thing that we’re hoping to win is safe staffing. If we can have safe staffing, we can hopefully reduce the violence against health care workers, which is increasingly going up at an all-time rate.” As the ratio between nurses and patients becomes more stark, the risk of violence increases. One Hennepin nurse was kicked in the belly by a patient during her third trimester of pregnancy and is currently on bed rest. While HCMC nurses are not allowed to strike due to a pre-existing contractual obligation, they are in wage reopener negotiations with the county health system.

As MNA gains traction and support, hospital executives have adopted multiple tactics to bust the union. Chris Rubesch, Vice President of MNA, reported that hospital management made it increasingly difficult to meet new hires for the union by changing the location of their contract-permitted union time with them. This made it all the more difficult to hire new people. 

Additionally, Essentia Health, a Minnesota hospital system, proposed removing current access to union bulletin boards in the employee break rooms on all units. This proposal was another tactic clearly aimed at making communicating with members more difficult. It took 12 sessions for management to drop this proposal, and it was certainly another step Essentia Health was taking in their openly anti-union tactics. 

More recently, MNA has documented the unfair labor practices of hospital systems — such as St. Luke’s Hospital, North Memorial Hospital and Essentia Health — kicking out union organizers, including MNA’s President Mary Turner. Rubesch stated, “while we have filed charges on these [incidents], we are concerned by the anti-union tactics that are driving them.” The incident at North Memorial Hospital was particularly distressing for union members because hospital security officers responded to a call about an “aggressive” person — an MNA organizer — who was a person of color. With George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police in 2020 still on everyone’s mind, this has raised extreme concern among MNA members that these union-busting tactics are heavily saturated with racism.

Finally, Rubesch noted that health systems, including St Luke’s Hospital, Essentia Health, Allina Health and HealthEast, among others, have been sending communications to MNA members containing falsehoods and mischaracterizations. He stated, “while these are not uncommon in the negotiations process, many have begun to smear nurse-leaders in a way that goes beyond hospital communications.” 

MNA’s primary demands are simple and clear: Hire more nursing staff by establishing fairer wages, which will in turn lead to safer working conditions by balancing the nurse-to-patient ratio. If these demands are not met in due time by hospital executives, a strike of this magnitude will undoubtedly shut down the city’s hospital systems. Who will take care of patients when nurses walk out? Certainly not CEOs. If Minnesota CEOs continue to prioritize profit margins over the basic labor rights of their nurses, innocent lives will be the cost.

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