Nurses picket in front of Allina’s United Hospital and Children’s Minnesota in St. Paul on Sept. 12, 2022, the first day of a three-day strike at 15 hospitals across the Twin Cities and Duluth area. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.
Thousands of union nurses walked off the job at 15 hospitals across the Twin Cities and Duluth area on Monday morning, launching the largest private-sector nurses strike in U.S. history.
The picket line in front of Allina’s United Hospital and Children’s Minnesota in St. Paul stretched for two blocks, with nurses holding signs reading “Patients Before Profits” as music blared, and passing drivers honked their support.
“We are overworked and we are burnt out and nothing is getting better,” said Karri Bowen, a nurse at United Hospital. “It’s time for the hospitals to step up and change.”
The three-day strike by some 15,000 nurses comes after months of failed negotiations over new contracts, with nurses demanding more staff and 30% wage increases over the next three years.
Hospitals have called those demands unrealistic and countered with about 10% to 12% wage increases over three years, which would be the largest pay bump in over a decade.
The hospitals brought in thousands of traveling nurses at significant expense — paying more than double staff wages — to continue providing care during the strike. Temporary nursing agencies were offering more than $10,000 a week — along with daily meal stipends and free housing and transportation — for traveling nurses in public job postings.
Patients at United said they wouldn’t have known there was a strike were it not for the long picket line in front.
Steve Packer’s teenage son had a three-hour heart surgery on Monday morning and said he didn’t notice any disruptions.
“There was really nothing that I noticed different,” Packer said. “I knew this was all going to be happening today … but really, everything went pretty smooth.”
Hospital representatives said while they delayed some elective procedures, most services continued uninterrupted.
The nurses carried out the strike even after most of the hospitals sought to block the strike by filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees private sector unions. The health systems — North Memorial Health, HealthPartners, Essentia, Children’s Minnesota, M Health Fairview, and St. Luke’s Duluth — argued the Minnesota Nurses Association failed to give proper notice before the strike. The NLRB is investigating the complaint but has not made a decision.
The strike has the potential to affect hospitals where nurses haven’t walked off the job. A spokeswoman for Hennepin Healthcare, one of the Twin Cities’ largest trauma centers, said they saw a higher volume of patients on Monday, but that the uptick in patients preceded the strike and has been high for weeks. A spokesman for HealthPartners said they have not seen an uptick in patients at Regions Hospital, a large trauma center where nurses are not unionized.
Nurses on the picket line said increased staffing levels was their main concern, and union leaders said they would be willing to come down on wage demands if the hospitals would negotiate on staffing levels.
Judy Goebel, a nurse at Children’s Minnesota in St. Paul and a member of the negotiating team, said the hospital is so short-staffed that they aren’t able to provide patients with their medications on time or promptly help patients to the bathroom.
“There’s just not enough of us to go around,” Goebel said.
Sarah Fahrenkamp, a nurse at United and a new mom, said she can barely find the time to pump breastmilk for her newborn at work.
“I don’t have somebody to cover me because we don’t have enough staff…but I have to go pump; it’s not an option,” Fahrenkamp said.
A recent survey from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute found 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.
Nurses and hospital leaders continued negotiations over the weekend, but have canceled talks during the strike. No future negotiations are scheduled.
Hospital leaders have also repeatedly requested the two sides enter mediation, which the nurses’ union has so far declined. Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, said mediation is only helpful when the two sides are close to an agreement.
Given how far apart the hospitals and nurses are on wages and staffing levels, a three-day strike may just be prologue to a longer, protracted strike.
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