Union nurses take fight to hospital board members as negotiations stall

By: - November 2, 2022 3:44 pm

Union nurses chant “Who’s gonna flip your grandpa?” in the lobby of U.S. Bank’s corporate offices in downtown Minneapolis on Nov. 2, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

More than 200 union nurses clad in red rallied in front of the U.S. Bank corporate offices in downtown Minneapolis on Wednesday, decrying the “failed leadership” of three bank executives who sit on the boards of Minnesota hospitals.

“They are responsible for what is going on at our hospitals. They are responsible for the failure of our CEOs,” Minnesota Nurses Association President Mary Turner told a crowd of cheering nurses.

The demonstration was the first public action since September, when 15,000 nurses walked off the job for three days at hospitals in the Twin Cities and Duluth area in the largest private sector nurses strike in U.S. history.

Since then, union leaders say negotiations with seven of the state’s largest health systems have yielded little progress. Nurses are seeking 30% pay increases over three years and a voice in staffing levels, a non-starter for hospital leaders. Hospitals have countered with about 12% increases over three years.

Hospitals have said the nurses’ demands are unrealistic and unaffordable amid soaring health care costs. Minnesota nurses are among the highest paid in the country, with the average registered nurse earning $39.40 an hour, or about $82,000 a year, according to the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Union nurses have focused their campaign for higher wages on executive management and compensation, aiming to leverage the broad public support for health care workers against the unpopularity of corner office dwellers.

In June, the union launched a public ad campaign blasting executive “greed” for rising health care costs, high staff turnover and a chronic nursing shortage. They followed that with a symbolic vote of no confidence in the executives of seven hospitals.

The nurses’ strategy is backed by a poll conducted for the union, which found just 11% of respondents said they viewed hospital executives favorably while 84% said they viewed nurses favorably.

Minnesota Nurses Association President Mary Turner leads a rally of union nurses outside U.S. Bank’s corporate offices in downtown Minneapolis on Nov. 2, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Outside U.S. Bank’s corporate offices, nurses held signs with the faces of U.S. Bank Vice Chairs Jeff von Gillern, who serves on the board of Children’s Minnesota; Jodi Richard, who serves on the board of Fairview Health; and Timothy Welsh, who serves on the board of Allina Health.

A spokesperson for U.S. Bank referred a request for comment to a statement from Allina Health, which said the nurses’ proposals for “unreasonable wages and staffing provisions” continue to stall negotiations.

“Allina Health is disappointed that the Minnesota Nurses Association continues to focus its energy on public rallies and demonstrations rather than getting serious about negotiating a fair and sustainable contract at the bargaining table,” the statement said.

The union accuses hospital board members of supporting the “corporatization” of health care, saying they don’t share the same priorities as Minnesota’s patients and health care workers.

Union nurses say high executive pay is just one of the ways their non-profit employers act more like corporations. They also point to an estimate by National Nurses United — a national nurses union — that U.S. hospitals charge patients more than four times their costs.

And they point to business practices like “just-in-time staffing” in which nurses will have their shifts cut with as few as four hours’ notice based on anticipated demand for health care. In theory, the practice is supposed to reduce unnecessary costs, but in practice, it results in understaffed shifts, leading to burnout and worse patient care, nurses say.

A recent report from the Minnesota Department of Health shows that adverse health events were up 33% in 2021 from 2020, while 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.

The union nurses were joined by other labor leaders, including the president of the Minneapolis Teachers Federation and the president of SEIU Local 26, who have both led strikes in recent months as labor unrest has roiled the country.

Labor leaders sought to draw a connection between their separate campaigns by calling attention to the power that Fortune 500 executives wield over workers across industries.

“We have to get past the puppets that we’re supposed to be bargaining with, and get to the puppeteers,” said SEIU Local 26 President Greg Nammacher. “These same folks are behind most of the important decisions that happen in our communities.”

Union leaders also tied their campaign to the push for racial justice, condemning racial disparities in health care outcomes and mistreatment of health care workers of color.

George Floyd’s aunt, Angela Harrelson, a former union nurse, spoke at the rally and urged nurses to “use their voice” after two grueling years battling the pandemic and confronting systemic racism.

“The gift that (Floyd) left for the world and for you all is to use your voice,” Harrelson said.

Nurses crowded into the lobby of the U.S. Bank offices, chanting “Who’s gonna flip your grandma?” and “Who’s gonna flip your grandpa?” before marching through downtown Minneapolis.

The nurses have not yet voted on authorizing another strike, but the rally signals many nurses are willing to walk off the job again.

The last protracted nurses strike was in 2016, when nurses at Allina went on strike for 37 days, just a day shy of the state’s longest nursing strike in 1984.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, 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.