The largest nursing strike in U.S. history is underway, with members of the Minnesota Nurses Association walking picketlines at 14 Twin Cities hospitals.
The walkout by 12,000 nurses started at 7 a.m. at facilities owned by six hospital systems: Health East, Allina, Methodist, Children’s, North Memorial and Fairview. It is scheduled to last one day, concluding at 7 a.m. Friday.
“One, two, three, four – more nurses needed on the floor!” strikers chanted as they picketed outside Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids. The nurses are seeking guaranteed staffing levels they say are necessary to ensure patient safety and quality of care.
Hospital administrators said they are keeping the facilities operating with the help of replacement nurses hired through national agencies that specialize in providing staff during strikes. But RN Jim Danielson has his doubts.
“They’ve closed down numerous floors,” said Danielson, who has worked for 13 years in the hospital’s mental health unit. “They’ve transferred patients around the Twin Cities (to non-struck hospitals). I know they’ve cancelled a lot of procedures and surgeries.
“This is not business as usual for the hospital, no matter what they have to say about that.”
Doggies and doughnuts
The atmosphere on the Mercy Hospital picketline was exuberant, even festive, as hundreds of MNA members wearing red union shirts strolled a picketline that stretched from one end of the hospital grounds to the other. Some brought their dogs; others had lawn chairs to sit in when they needed a break.
Felix, a Jack Russell terrier owned by RN Becky Hallstrom, sported a Minnesota Vikings collar and a red t-shirt with the words, “I love my nurse,” eliciting smiles from other strikers.
Mounds of food and drink were available at several waystations, which the strikers soon nicknamed after their work units – “ICU” and “3West.” Extra picket signs were piled next to cases of bottled water.
Members of other unions showed up in solidarity. The Service Employees International Union, which organized a vigil Wednesday night in support of the nurses, had staff and members at all 14 picketlines.
Patients also joined the strikers. Don Laufenberg of Blaine, who had just been at Mercy Friday for surgery on his leg, walked up with several boxes of doughnuts, prompting cheers from the nurses.
“I can’t say why they’re on strike,” Laufenberg acknowledged. “All I know, as a former patient, is I want the best care for the money I’m paying . . . The nurses I’ve met here are very good.”
Showing unity at Unity
The scene was similar at Unity Hospital in Fridley, where Laurie Olmon walked the picketline with nurses, carrying a sign that read, “30+ years: Cared for by Minnesota nurses.”
“I’ve been in and out of the ER and hospital for years,” said Olmon, who has epilepsy. “The people who have taken care of me the most are the nurses . . . They took care of me and I’m here to take care of them.”
The union, citing little progress in negotiations that began in March, called the one-day strike to put pressure on management to put patient-staff ratios in hospital contracts. Currently, understaffing or inappropriate staffing is making it difficult if not impossible to provide good patient care, the nurses said.
The union is compiling stories on its website to illustrate the effects of unsafe staffing.
Management wants ultimate flexibility in staffing, assigning nurses across units and even across hospitals.
Other issues in the strike include management’s demand to slash the nurses\' pension fund by one third, moving it back to 1968 economic levels.
The hospitals said they cannot afford to increase staffing to the level sought by the nurses. But as a group, Twin Cities hospitals made nearly $700 million in profits during 2009.
On the Mercy picketline, strikers chanted the question: “Hey, hey, ho, ho – where does all the money go?”
The current strike surpasses the walkout of 1984, when 6,000 RNs across Minnesota walked off the job for 38 days. It was the largest RN strike in U.S. history until today.