15,000 Minnesota nurses to walk off job in historic strike over wages and staffing levels

The strike will be one of the largest nurses’ strikes in U.S. history, affecting 16 hospitals across the Twin Cities and Duluth area

By: - September 1, 2022 9:46 am

Minnesota Nurses Association President Mary Turner announces on Sept. 1, 2022, a three-day strike by 15,000 nurses in the Twin Cities and Duluth-area, the largest private sector nurses strike in U.S. history. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

After months of stalled negotiations, some 15,000 union nurses across more than a dozen hospitals will strike for three days later this month in what the union believes will be the largest private sector nurses’ strike in U.S. history.

“Today is a somber day,” said Minnesota Nurses Association President Mary Turner, dressed in all black, during a Thursday news conference. “Our health care and our profession are in crisis.”

The strike will begin on Sept. 12, after the required 10-day notice period, and affect 16 hospitals run by many of the state’s largest health systems including Allina, HealthPartners, Children’s Minnesota, Fairview Health Services, North Memorial, Essentia and St. Luke’s Duluth.

The nurses are seeking 30% increases to pay and benefits over the next three years, a proposal that hospital leaders say is financially impossible after more than two years of financial strain during the pandemic that have resulted in multimillion dollar losses.

Hospital leaders have countered with raises of about 10% over three years, which they say would be the largest raises for nurses in 15 years.

A spokesperson for several hospitals said they are disappointed the union “rushed into an intent to strike” and called the nurses’ economic demands “unreasonable, unrealistic and unaffordable.”

“We understand the past two years have been hard on everyone in health care … Today, our non-profit hospitals continue to recover financially from the COVID-19 pandemic,” said a statement provided by Paul Omodt, a spokesman for the Twin Cities Hospital Group, which includes Children’s Minnesota, HealthPartners, M Health Fairview and North Memorial.

The hospitals will remain open during the strike, hospital representatives said, and they’re working on contingency plans to continue providing care should they fail to reach a deal with the union in the next 10 days.

The strike threatens to disrupt patient care and hurt hospital finances by forcing the health systems to hire temporary nurses at premium rates.

In 2016, two nurses’ strikes at Allina cost the health system $149 million, wiping out its entire operating income for the year. The nurses went on strike for one week in the summer, followed by an open-ended strike that lasted 37 days, one day shy of the longest nurses’ strike in state history.

Union nurses say the step is necessary to protect the quality of care for patients long term.

Nurses say hospitals are dangerously understaffed, leading to more patient injuries like bed sores and falls. A recent report from the Minnesota Department of Health shows adverse health events were up 33% in 2021 from 2020 and last year, nurses filed nearly 8,000 reports of unsafe staffing levels, an increase of 300% from 2014.

“Everywhere in Minnesota nurses have watched CEOs with million-dollar salaries understaff our units, pushing us to do more with less, even before the pandemic hit,” Turner said.

Tracy Dittrich, a nurse at Children’s Minnesota, said some nurses have been spread across two or three babies who need one-on-one care.

Brianna Hnath, an intensive care nurse at North Memorial, said last weekend the emergency room wait time reached 14 hours.

“Can you imagine waiting 14 hours just to be seen in the emergency room?” Hnath said during Thursday’s news conference. “If things continue on as they are, this will be the new normal.”

Some 12,000 union nurses in the Twin Cities went on strike in 2010 over staffing levels, which the union says have only grown worse.

Hospitals have struggled to recruit new nurses, while others have left the industry in droves. A recent survey from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute found that a little more than half of nurses are considering leaving the profession in the next year, mainly because of what they say are unsafe staffing levels.

Hospital leaders have asked the union to bring in a federal mediator to help them reach a deal, which union leaders have so far declined. Turner said that a mediator is only helpful when the two sides are close to a deal.

The two sides could avert a strike by reaching a deal in the next 10 days, but given how far they are apart, a three-day strike may just be prologue to a longer, protracted strike.

“The three days may not be enough,” Turner said.

The strike announcement comes after a series of actions by the union to ratchet up pressure on hospital executives ever since contracts expired on May 31 for Twin Cities nurses and June 30 for Duluth-area nurses.

The nurses came out swinging with a public relations campaign blasting the seven-figure salaries of health executives and calling “greed” a “health crisis of unprecedented proportions.”

They then took a symbolic vote of no confidence in the CEOs at seven hospitals before voting to authorize a strike with more than two-thirds support on Aug. 16. A day later, nurses at Essentia’s hospital in Moose Lake also voted to authorize a strike.

Hospital representatives point out that some executives took a pay cut during the pandemic — although they still realized substantial gains in recent years.

For example, Fairview Health Services CEO James Hereford received $2.62 million in total compensation in 2020. While that’s 26% less than what he received the year before, his 2020 compensation was still up 40% from 2018.

Hospital representatives also point out that executive compensation isn’t part of union negotiations with the nurses. But the union is confident that drawing attention to pay disparity between executives and nurses will help them win the public’s support.

The nurse union commissioned a survey of Minnesotans that found 84% said they viewed nurses favorably. By contrast, just 11% said they viewed hospital executives favorably.

“The public, our elected officials and other unions are all standing with us,” Turner said.

The hospitals where nurses will strike if a deal isn’t reached are: Abbott Northwestern, North Memorial, Mercy, United, Unity, Children’s Minneapolis, Children’s St. Paul, Essentia (Duluth), Essentia (Superior, Wisc.), Methodist, M Health Fairview Riverside, Southdale, HealthEast St. Joe’s, HealthEast St. John’s, St. Luke’s Duluth and Essentia Moose Lake.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.

MORE FROM AUTHOR