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12,000+ Minnesota nurses walk off jobs in show of union force, solidarity

By Associated Press
Thursday, June 10, 2010 23:04 EDT
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Organizers, hospitals call 1-day event the largest nurse strike in America’s history

More than 12,000 nurses walked off the job Thursday for a one-day strike at 14 Minnesota hospitals, a show of force being watched by many across the country as a test of how fiercely a new national nurses’ union can flex its muscle.

Nurses say they are being asked to care for too many patients at a time, and strict ratios are necessary to protect patient safety. The hospitals, all in the Minneapolis area, counter patients are safe and that the walkout is a headline-grabbing stunt to build membership and clout for the fledgling union.

About the same number of nurses had wanted a simultaneous strike in California over the same issues, but were blocked temporarily earlier this week by a San Francisco judge.

Labor experts say unlike other unions that might shy away from striking during a recession, nurses have certain job security because they are in demand and can’t be outsourced.

“Auto plants can be moved overseas, but it’s a lot harder to move health care treatment overseas,” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute.

Vanderbilt University nursing professor Peter Buerhaus also noted a looming nurse shortage caused by aging baby boomers, increasing demand when about a third of today’s nurses are expected to retire in the next 10 years.

“Where are we going to get all these nurses?” he said. “We’re running out.”

The Minnesota nurses walked off the job at 7 a.m. and onto picket lines at several sites. At Abbott Northwestern Hospital near downtown Minneapolis, one nurse serenaded several hundred others by playing “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes. Passing motorists honked horns, and red T-shirted nurses waved signs that read, “We care. For you” and “RNs protecting patients.”

Sue Stamness, a cardiology nurse at Abbott for 24 years, said patient safety was the nurses’ top concern.

“Nobody is listening to what we are saying,” Stamness said.

Though called the largest nurses’ strike in U.S. history by both the union and the hospitals, the effects were minimal. But they came at a cost: Hospitals hired 2,800 replacement nurses, called in extra non-unionized staff, reduced patient levels and some hospitals rescheduled elective surgeries.

Web advertisements from two large staffing agencies — Healthsource Global Staffing and U.S Nursing — said they were offering replacement nurses between $1,600 and $2,224 for one day of work and one day of orientation.

Dr. Penny Wheeler, chief clinical officer at Allina Hospitals and Clinics, said there were no reports of problems at any of the 14 hospitals. Wheeler said those hospitals would begin recalling their regular nurses Friday.

The Minnesota and California negotiations are the largest since the National Nurses United union formed in December. The union quickly adopted an aggressive slate of national negotiating principles, with a top goal of getting strict staffing ratios in each member local’s contract.

It’s an approach the California Nurses Association successfully lobbied into California law, beginning in 2004. The CNA, one of the founding members of the NNU, claims the number of licensed nurses in the state increased by 40 percent since it passed.

In just six months, the union’s simple message that more nurses means better patient care has found favor with stressed-out nurses frustrated with local representation or not previously unionized.

Bob Stalley, a nurse at the University of Chicago Medical Center, was among 1,130 nurses who voted last month to leave the Illinois Nurses Association for the NNU. He said nurses liked the NNU’s insistence of limits on the number of patients assigned to a single nurse — and its willingness to strike. The NNU has said it may try to reopen a labor contract signed in April.

The NNU cites research showing more nurses have meant fewer medical errors in California hospitals — and thus lowered medical costs. The Twin Cities hospitals dispute those claims and point to other research indicating strict ratios aren’t as successful. And they say the ratios wouldn’t give them the flexibility they need and would add unsustainable annual costs.

Several NNU leaders were in Minneapolis on Thursday touring picket lines.

NNU Co-President Jean Ross, a veteran Minnesota nurse, said nurses nationwide are facing the same issues as hospitals try to cut costs. She said they are being asked to work faster on sicker patients with less help.

She said if hospitals around the country don’t increase staffing, nurse strikes could become more common. “It is not that this is a tactic that nurses want to employ, it’s what the employers are forcing us into,” she said.

But neither Ross nor other NNU officials could say whether other job actions were imminent outside California and Minnesota.

Representatives of hospital groups in both states claim the national union is bent on provoking a high-profile strike to grow its membership.

“There is a wall being put up by the national nurses union that’s keeping us from settling these contracts,” said Maureen Schriner, spokeswoman for the 14 Minnesota hospitals. NNU Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro said the claim that the Minnesota nurses weren’t in charge of their own strike was “just an insult.”

The hospitals’ last proposal offers pay increases over the three-year contract of zero percent, 1 percent and 2 percent, with other increases for seniority. The union wants increases of 3.5 percent to 4 percent a year. The hospitals also want to cut pension benefits, which the union resists.

Full-time Minnesota nurses are paid an average $79,000 a year, or about $10,000 more than the national average. However, when figuring in that most nurses work part-time, the average Minnesota nurse makes about $62,000 a year, or $38 an hour.

This video is from Minnesota independent media outlet The UpTake, published to the Web on Thursday, June 10, 2010.

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