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Nurses authorize second strike, with a start date of Dec. 11

Nurses voted Wednesday to authorize a second strike of 16 hospitals in the Twin Cities and Duluth areas if languishing contract talks don’t produce a deal in the next 10 days.

Hospitals received strike notices overnight, and the Minnesota Nurses Association announced Thursday morning that the walkouts will start Dec. 11 and last until Dec. 31 at most hospitals. Nurses at St. Luke’s hospitals in Duluth and Two Harbors took a harder line and opted for an open-ended strike until a deal is reached.

Union leaders hoped the vote itself would motivate hospitals to improve their offers on pay, workplace violence prevention and staffing levels. Nurses drew a direct line between understaffing and hospitals being overwhelmed this flu season.

Five nurses were caring for 39 patients one night on a cardiac unit in Essentia Health’s St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth, an eight-to-one ratio that is excessive even on overnight shifts, said Essentia nurse Corrine Schraufnagel: “We are stretched incredibly thin at the hospital. It is dangerous and scary some shifts — the care that some of the patients are receiving.”

The result of the vote was anticlimactic; unions don’t call for strike votes unless they they have support — just as MNA did this fall when a similar vote led to a three-day strike of around 15,000 nurses. MNA had already surveyed members about next steps this winter.

The union surprised hospital leaders by immediately issuing strike notices after the vote — deviating from a successful strategy in 2019 when a strike vote alone by nurses at Children’s Minnesota resulted in accelerated negotiations and a deal two days later.

Negotiations will continue, but hospitals must pivot because of the 10-day notice and start hiring replacement nurses at premium rates that far exceed typical wages.

“We are deeply disappointed by (MNA’s) choice to issue a strike notice when our community is experiencing a triple threat of illnesses – influenza, RSV and COVID – and before they have exhausted all available options to reach agreement,” said a statement provided by Allina Health spokesperson Conny Bergerson. Hospitals are under “unprecedented stress” right now, the statement said.

Allina’s Abbott Northwestern, Mercy and United hospitals are involved in the contract talks along with Children’s, North Memorial Health in Robbinsdale, HealthPartners’ Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, and M Health Fairview’s Southdale and St. John’s hospitals along with the West Bank campus of the University of Minnesota Medical Center.

Essentia hospitals in Duluth and Superior are also involved along with the two St. Luke’s hospitals. Contracts are reached between MNA nurses and their individual hospital systems, but the negotiations take place concurrently.

“We need to stress our hospitals will be open during this 10-day period although your care providers may need to reschedule non-critical care procedures,” said a written statement from the Twin Cities hospitals other than Allina that are involved in the labor action.

Patients with urgent needs should continue to call 911 or go to emergency rooms, but others “may experience longer wait times for services while care teams triage patients,” the statement said. “We ask everyone for patience.”

Negotiations have progressed since the fall strike, when nurses wanted more than 30% raises over three-year contracts and hospitals offered around 10%. At Methodist and North Memorial, the nurses now are asking for 20% raises and the hospitals are offering 14.5%.

Some hospitals have reached tentative agreements with nurses on how to improve safety, with assaults by patients and visitors on the rise. Staffing plans are another issue — with nurses wanting more assurances of adequate nurse-to-patient ratios than hospitals are willing to give.

MNA negotiators initially asked for the ability to reject staffing plans if a majority of nurses viewed them as unsafe. Hospitals balked at relinquishing so much control. Nurses have since asked to automatically review and revise staffing levels if patient falls, bed sores or other preventable problems significantly increase.

Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday said he is “incredibly hopeful” the two sides will work out a deal that gives nurses enough resources while not compromising hospitals’ finances.

“I know now that there’s a lot of tensions around health care in general, and these providers that have been on the front lines are feeling that strain,” he said.

Methodist and Southdale nurses leaving a voting site in Bloomington on Wednesday said staffing levels weighed on their decisions to support a second strike.

Southdale med-surge nurse Nellie Arsenyeva said she loves her hospital and patients, but is routinely picking up four-hour extra shifts after 12-hour regular shifts because of shortages. Pressure has increased over the past two years to take on extra patients, even those with complex illnesses or obesity levels that make them difficult to transfer.

“Its hard,” she said. “We’re overworked.”

Staffing has been a core concern in prior contract talks, and prompted a one-day strike in 2010. Solutions were set aside in a final deal that year that preserved pension and other benefits.

The situation has worsened, with many nurses leaving hospital care after a difficult COVID-19 pandemic, said Angela Becchetti, an Abbott Northwestern nurse and MNA board member. The lack of compromise on staffing solutions motivated the decision to issue a strike notice immediately after the vote — and the decision by St. Luke’s nurses to go a step farther and make their strike open-ended.

“It’s time,” Becchetti said. “Nine months at the [negotiating] table, we have gotten nowhere on staffing.”

Staff writers Jana Hollingsworth and Ryan Faircloth contributed to this report.

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