Mary Turner just led the largest private-sector nurses strike in U.S. history. What’s next?

The Minnesota Nurses Association president found her voice when she turned 50 and became an evangelist for unionizing health care

By: - December 14, 2022 1:35 pm

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.

Mary Turner bounded into the conference room at North Memorial hospital, where nurses were voting to authorize a second strike in three months.

“Sorry, I was just on the phone with the governor,” she said.

Gov. Tim Walz, in a meeting kept off his public schedule, had just spoken with leaders from seven of the state’s largest health care systems. They were staring down the possibility of flying in thousands of temporary nurses to care for patients with RSV, COVID-19, influenza and everything else.

The nurses’ union wasn’t revealing for how long they planned to strike, but the hospitals could guess it’d be longer than the three-day strike in September that yielded little progress in negotiations.

Walz called Turner after his meeting with the hospital leaders to tell her what they said.

“Yeah, this is a pretty big deal,” said Turner, who also works weekend night shifts in the intensive care unit. “To have three level one traumas —”

She cut herself off to greet a nurse walking in to vote.

“Are you the first of our air care?” Turner asked the nurse, who transports patients around the region in North Memorial’s helicopters.

Turner gets to know as many nurses as she can, a critical task for a union leader trying to get 15,000 people to march off their jobs together.

Had she ever been a helicopter nurse?

“Are you kidding? I weigh too much,” Turner quipped.

It was characteristic self-deprecating humor she uses to endear her audience to her. She likes to make people like her, though she says she has no problem drawing a knife if she has to. Especially with hospital leaders.

“I can smile at them in the meeting and crucify them in the press. That’s power,” Turner said on another occasion.

That day, nurses delivered her the second strike authorization she asked of them. And the next day, her union called a three-week strike at hospitals across the Twin Cities and Duluth. Nurses at two hospitals committed to striking indefinitely.

In turn, the union delivered for them.

On Wednesday, nurses ratified contracts at 15 hospitals that include the largest pay raise in 20 years: 18% over three years in the Twin Cities and 17% in the Duluth area. The contracts also each include some provisions giving nurses a greater say in staffing levels — not the ability to set minimum staffing levels, as the union was angling for, but a foot in the door nonetheless.

The gains are an exclamation point on Turner’s term as president of the Minnesota Nurses Association. Her term is up next year, and term limits prevent her from seeking reelection a third time.

But she says she’s far from finished. She wants to win more control over staffing at the state Legislature, and then, go national. She wants to be president of National Nurses United.

Turner, dressed in all black, announces 15,000 nurses will strike for three days in September 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

From candy striper to nurse 

Turner got her first job in health care when she was 12 years old. She volunteered at a nearby nursing home in New Hope as a “candy striper” — named for the red and white pinafores they wore that Turner says made her look like a candy cane.

It was 1972, back when health care providers could still use unpaid pre-teens to feed residents, change linens and staff the gift store.

Turner’s step-mom sent nearly all eight kids to volunteer at Saint Therese once they turned 12, so they would have some work experience to get real jobs. For Turner, that came at 16, when she was hired by the nursing home as a nursing assistant on the night shift.

There was no union, but there was an employee relations committee, which Turner soon joined.

“My first fight was getting a decent holiday meal for the night shift. Because we always got just this mangy, dried up plate of cold cuts … while everyone had turkey and stuffing,” Turner said.

Turner worked as a nurses’ aid into her early 20s and then spent a decade in human resources at Saint Therese — “which was called ‘Personnel’ at the time, and they actually worked for the employee, not against them.”

When she was 32, she tried going back to work as a nurses’ assistant but found it too physically taxing. So with one kid in kindergarten and three in diapers, Turner went back to school for nursing at North Hennepin Community College while working nights as a nursing assistant.

“I was a 3.8 grade-point-average,” Turner boasted. “I was never so organized as I was back then.”

Turner started at Abbott Northwestern in 1996 before taking a job in 2006 at North Memorial, which was closer to her home in New Hope.

Almost without exception, Turner has worked the night shift her entire nursing career. She still works three overnight shifts — 11 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. — every weekend at North Memorial in the intensive care unit, which allows her to focus on leading the nurses’ union during the week.

Now 62 years old, she has short, curled platinum blond hair and always wears bright, MNA-red nail polish. She often comes to news conferences wearing oversized sunglasses, wide leg jeans and Birkenstocks — the relatable Midwestern mom version of a union boss.

Turner has a self-declared knack for theatrics. When she announced a three-day strike in September, she told reporters she was dressed in all black because of the gravity of the situation.

Despite growing up in a union family — her dad was a union postal worker and her mom a union grocery store worker — leading a union was hardly something she dreamed of.

“I was actually a born and raised Republican,” Turner said. “(I) felt that I had no place with the union because they were just for Democrat nurses … This was my perception.”

Founded in 1905, the Minnesota Nurses Association began as a political advocacy group for trained nurses, lobbying for a state registration and licensing system along with minimum education standards. In 1947, nurses gained the right to collectively bargain at hospitals in Minnesota, which opened the doors for the MNA to represent unionized nurses in contract negotiations over wages, benefits and working standards. Today, the union represents 20,000 Minnesota nurses — about one in six registered nurses in the state — as well as about 2,000 nurses in Wisconsin, North Dakota and Iowa.

Like every union, the Minnesota Nurses Association supports the politicians who promise to back their agenda: state licensure, continuing education requirements, government-subsidized health insurance and minimum nursing staffing levels. That’s meant the union has closely aligned itself with the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, a persistent source of tension even for a union representing mostly left-leaning, educated, urban and suburban women.

But Turner still eagerly courts conservative nurses in the union’s ranks. They’re necessary for successful strikes and can play a critical role in expanding nurses’ influence at the Capitol. She hasn’t always been successful.

In the middle of negotiations with hospitals in the Twin Cities and Duluth this summer, about 500 nurses at the Mayo Clinic’s Mankato hospital voted to get rid of the union.

It was a major blow to MNA, which had represented nurses at that facility for more than seven decades. The effort was spearheaded by the step-daughter of Republican billionaire Glen Taylor with help from the National Right To Work Foundation.

Many of the nurses there are more conservative than the majority of the union’s members, who are in the Twin Cities. Turner said she wanted to go down there but didn’t mount an earnest defense until close to the decertification vote. “It was too little too late,” Turner said.

She suspects many of the Republican nurses don’t want to get involved in the union because of its DFL-alignment. But she said it’s the nurses in Mankato, not the union, who need to change their approach.

“That mentality of ‘I’m a Republican, so I’m not going to be involved in the union.’ They get all mixed up with ‘union’ and ‘politics,’” Turner said. “They’re going to have to prove to us that they want the union because they lost it.”

Turner leads a march of union nurses through downtown Minneapolis on Nov. 2, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Finding her voice

Turner now identifies as a moderate Democrat, who she says are more like the Republican leaders of yore: Arnie Carlson, Rudy Boschwitz and Dave Durenberger.

“That party doesn’t exist anymore,” Turner said. “As soon as (former U.S. Rep.) Michele Bachmann came on the scene and — what were they called back then? the Tea Party? — that’s when I left.”

When Turner joined the union in the 90s, she was still a Republican. She supported her hospital’s bargaining unit and even joined the negotiating team to push for higher wages and better working conditions, but she stayed clear of the union’s political activities beyond her hospital.

She was radicalized by the health care industry’s profit and loss mentality. During a contentious 2010 standoff, 12,000 nurses walked off the job at 14 hospitals for one day in what was then the largest nurses strike in U.S. history.

Unlike this year’s fight for massive wage gains, nurses then were trying to fend off significant cuts to their benefits as hospitals suffered from the effects of the Great Recession. It was, in Turner’s telling, an existential threat to the union.

“We had to save our union,” Turner said. “They just went through the book and wanted to take away all of our benefits … It was a very stupid strategy from the employers’ point of view because there was something in there for everybody.”

Turner learned what was most valuable to each nurse she talked to. For young moms who weren’t worried about a cut to pensions, she explained how mandatory overtime could make it hard for them to get home to their kids.

Turner says she only slept two hours a day for six months that year. She was either at the hospital working or roaming the halls to talk to nurses about the contract negotiations.

A transformative moment came for her in the middle of the night during the one-day strike. She got out on a ledge in front of around 200 nurses and gave a rousing speech.

“That’s when I learned that I could just do an extemporaneous speech … and move a crowd. And I found that out at 50 years old,” Turner said. “It was at that point that I decided that I could someday run for president of MNA.”

The union and the hospitals reached agreements only after the nurses voted to authorize a second, open-ended strike.

The 2010 negotiations ended up being successful only in terms of what nurses’ didn’t lose: cuts to their pensions, health insurance and seniority benefits. Nurses gave up demands for improved patient staffing ratios and accepted a 3% wage increase spread over three years.

Turner ran for a vice president position but lost — twice — before she took a role lobbying at the state Capitol as chair of the union’s government affairs committee. She helped shepherd a bill through a divided Legislature that requires hospitals to take more steps to prevent and respond to violence against health care workers.

In 2015, she won a contested election for president of the union and then ran unopposed in 2017 and 2020. When her term expires in 2023, she’ll be the longest serving president in MNA’s history.

The war with COVID

At the beginning of the pandemic, Turner was one of the few health care workers in Minnesota to go on the record about the crisis unfolding in hospitals.

She enjoyed the protection of being a union president to raise the alarm about what she saw as an ICU nurse at North Memorial, like nurses wearing raincoats for protection and masks until they disintegrated on their faces.

Hospital leaders largely denied journalists access and, in Turner’s mind, downplayed the severity of the shortage of hospital beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment. That was a massive public relations failure, according to Turner, and a missed opportunity to send a unified message to the public about the threat of the virus.

She gave a tearful speech to state senators in April 2020, in which she blasted hospital leaders for rationing their limited stockpile of PPE.

“We are at war,” Turner told them. “We head to the hospitals every day with what little PPE we have and that’s our armor.”

Then-GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said they would “move hell or high water” to get nurses what they needed, and the Star Tribune’s editorial board called the lack of PPE a “national disgrace.”

In between caring for COVID-19 patients in the ICU, she frequently gave emotional testimony to state lawmakers and became a reliable “phone-a-quote” for reporters, feeding them pithy lines on short notice. She says her favorite part of news conferences is taking questions because there’s no script to follow and she gets to shoot from the hip.

“I once had a priest say, “You’re not the best looking, but you’ve got something more important: You’ve got charm,’” Turner recounted, laughing. (She was 12 years old at the time).

In November 2020, she spoke on a national round-table with then President-elect Joe Biden, during which she surprised him with the fact that she had never been tested for COVID-19. The next year, she was appointed to a federal COVID-19 task force.

Her frequent public appearances helped raise the profile of nurses’ issues that preceded the pandemic, such as low staffing levels and violence against health care workers.

“I always get the daily paper, and I have watched through the years, from 2010 we have gone from being page A-11, where we were the last paragraph — and placement is everything in a paper — to being front and center,” Turner said.

Turner announces that nurses took a vote of no confidence in the executives of four health systems — Fairview Health, Children’s Minnesota, North Memorial and St. Luke’s Duluth at a news conference in Minneapolis on August 2, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The 2022 fight 

The nurses’ union waged its war for higher pay and higher staffing levels as much in the public sphere as it did at the bargaining table, recognizing the brimming well of public support nurses built up through the pandemic.

The union tested various messages in polls and focus groups and landed on executive mismanagement and corporate greed. The union accuses the hospital systems of operating like profit-seeking corporations, even though all seven are non-profits — Allina, M Health Fairview, HealthPartners, Children’s Minnesota, North Memorial Health, St. Luke’s Duluth and Essentia Duluth.

The nurses’ union set the terms of the fight — burned-out nurses vs. greedy hospital executives — with “informational” picket lines and an ad campaign in June, right after contracts expired for nurses in the Twin Cities and Duluth area.

“Minnesota is facing a health care crisis of unprecedented proportions. And it’s not COVID. It’s greed,” says a male voice ominously on one of the commercials.

The nurses’ union doesn’t negotiate over executive compensation, as hospital spokesmen frequently pointed out, but that fact was irrelevant in a battle for public support.

It was an audacious opening salvo considering the nurses’ starting proposal was 39% raises across the board over three years, and the fact that Minnesota nurses are already among the highest paid in the country. (The average registered nurse earns about $82,000 a year, according to state data.) But the union’s polling showed the public’s support continued to be with them.

“That intuitively made sense to me, when you’re appealing to the public,” said Sam Fettig, a communications specialist for the nurses’ union who previously worked for Sen. Al Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton. “(People) experience health care that way — the bills, the waits, the insurance companies.”

A focus group included an Edina lawyer who described himself as conservative and was married to a police officer. He supported the nurses.

“The whole concept of picking on the bosses appeals to everybody,” Turner said.

The union was also disciplined in explaining how their demands would help the public as patients. Turner frequently pointed to a recent report from the Minnesota Department of Health that showed adverse health events were up 33% in 2021 from 2020. And she pointed to a recent survey from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute that 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.

“Nobody wants to sit and listen to a nurse just whine about how she doesn’t get a break. That is a failed message,” Turner said.

Turner and the union kept their campaign in the news through the summer and fall with confrontational stunts.

They announced an entirely symbolic vote of no confidence in the executives of seven hospitals outside the University of Minnesota on the day two hospital leaders were presenting on the future of the health care industry.

Later, after their three-day September strike, the union staged a protest outside the offices of U.S. Bank executives who serve on the boards of local hospitals. Turner stood in the bed of a pick-up truck in her Birkenstocks and pointed an accusatory finger at the downtown Minneapolis skyscraper.

“They are responsible for what’s going on in our hospitals. They are responsible for the failure of our CEOs,” Turner said to a cheering crowd.

Having the public’s support may not seem all that important to negotiations between union leaders and hospitals, but Turner says it’s critical to keeping nurses unified.

“(Nurses) get really bothered when they see bad press or if they feel like we’re not doing enough,” Turner said.

Turner’s penchant for a good storyline has gotten her in trouble. At the start of the three-day strike in September, she heard that some ICU nurses at St. Luke’s in Duluth weren’t able to get to the picket line on time. She assumed they were being held up inside the hospital.

“So I accused (St. Luke’s) of holding the nurses hostage, and it got on the five o’clock (news),” Turner said, laughing. “I just went on and on about it all day long.”

It turned out some nurses were held 20 minutes past the strike’s 7:30 a.m. start, but it was far from a hostage situation. St. Luke’s spokesperson blasted Turner for the “absurd” claim — which also made the news. Some union nurses demanded Turner retract the statement because it had gotten one of the “good managers” in trouble.

Turner expressed to the nurses that her reaction was out of concern for them, but said there were no “good managers” at the moment and there would be no retraction.

“I am sorry that I caused them any distress,’” Turner said. “But there is no way on God’s green earth that I’m going to say an apology or anything … especially at St. Luke’s, who’s horrible.”

Maintaining unity among 15,000 nurses across 15 hospitals and seven health systems has been Turner’s biggest challenge, but vital to the nurses’ success.

There’s the practical benefit of sticking together: When nurses at just one hospital go on strike, the other area hospitals can easily pick up the slack.

But there’s also an intangible drain on morale from going at it alone. Turner said in 2010, many Fairview nurses were apprehensive about a strike after walking the picket lines by themselves for 23 days in 2001. This year, many Allina nurses were still scarred from striking mostly alone for 37 days in 2016.

“If you break apart and one entity goes out by themselves, then it’s horrible. And it’s very traumatizing,” Turner said.

There’s a third benefit — for Turner anyway — to keeping 15,000 nurses together, from strike to settlement. She wants to be president of National Nurses United, and leading the largest nurses’ strike in U.S. history is a great addition to her resume.

“She doesn’t hide the fact that she wants to go higher,” said Barb Warren-Bloms, a nurse at North Memorial and member of the negotiating committee who’s known Turner for over a decade.

“She wants to be one of the NNU presidents and I think she’d be great for it. She’s sometimes so into that, that you wished she would come back to North Memorial for a minute,” Warren-Bloms said in an interview shortly before the hospitals and nurses reached a deal.

Less than a week before the nurses were set to go on strike for a second time, the union and hospitals announced they had reached tentative agreements. The nine-month fight ended as most labor negotiations do: with both sides declaring victory.

The nurses won the highest pay raise in two decades, while the hospitals halved nurses’ original wage proposal and brought it more in line with national trends.

The nurses got historic staffing language, but the hospitals maintained nearly all their control over staffing levels. There will be no new staffing ratios set by union nurses, but the union will get a second bite at the apple during the legislative session, when they hope state lawmakers will pass a bill requiring hospitals to create committees of nurses and managers to set staffing levels.

On Wednesday, Turner delivered the news that nurses voted to ratify the contracts with a gentle jab of the hospital bosses.

“Our work is not done … The status quo of our healthcare system is unsustainable. We continue to fight for staffing levels and to oppose the corporatization of our health care.”

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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.