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12,000 Minnesota Nurses Stage One-Day Strike

Fairview Southdale Hospital emergency room nurse Jeanne Delie pickets outside the hospital in Edina, Minn., on Thursday.
Jim Mone
Fairview Southdale Hospital emergency room nurse Jeanne Delie pickets outside the hospital in Edina, Minn., on Thursday.

Outside Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, what was called the largest nurses strike in U.S. history began Thursday to the sounds of "Amazing Grace" played on Michael Redmond's bagpipe.

The 50-year-old nurse, wearing a red Minnesota Nurses Association T-shirt and green plaid kilt, said he picked the song because of its history as an old abolitionist rallying cry. He played as night-shift nurses walked off the job early Thursday.

He said he sees a connection between the old fight against slavery and the strike by 12,000 Minnesota nurses. "The rally cry is that we're standing up for patient care and we're standing up for ourselves," he said.

A key issue in the dispute was the nurses' demand for strict nurse-to-patient ratios, rejected by hospitals as inflexible and unnecessary. Sue Stamness, a cardiology nurse at Abbott for 24 years, said patient safety was the nurses' top concern.

"Nobody is listening to what we are saying," Stamness said.

Patient Care Unaffected

The nurses began their one-day strike at 7 a.m. at 14 hospitals in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Organizers said nurses would walk picket lines in three eight-hour shifts and by the end of the day nearly all 12,000 would participate.

Though called the largest nurses strike in U.S. history by both the union and the hospitals, the immediate effect was expected to be minimal. Hospitals hired 2,800 replacement nurses, called in extra non-unionized staff and reduced patient levels. Some hospitals rescheduled elective surgeries. Staff of two of the metro area's largest hospitals weren't involved in the strike.

Nurses picket outside Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis as part of a one-day strike at 14 Minnesota hospitals Thursday.
Jim Mone
Nurses picket outside Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis as part of a one-day strike at 14 Minnesota hospitals Thursday.

Near midday, hospital officials said they were having no problems with patient care, with more than enough nurses on hand. Maureen Schriner, a spokeswoman for the hospitals, said all the hospitals were open and that emergency and childbirth departments were fully staffed. Patients with specific questions about their care Thursday were asked to call their doctors.

In the cardiovascular intensive care unit at Abbott early Thursday, nurse Bridget Parks said extra doctors were around to reinforce the replacement nurses. A lot of them. "It is amazing how many physicians they thought it took to replace the nurses," she said.

Like other businesses, hospitals are trying to trim their budgets even as health care costs have been skyrocketing. Nurse pay and benefits are among the hospitals' largest expenses. Nurses oppose proposed pension cuts and complain that staffing levels have reached dangerous levels, making their jobs ever more stressful.

Patients are older and tend to be sicker, with multiple chronic conditions. Also, advancing medical technology is putting new demands on nurses, said Karen Higgins, a Massachusetts nurse and one of three presidents of National Nurses United, a national union of 155,000 nurses that was formed when three regional unions joined six months ago. The Minnesota Nurses Association is affiliated with it.

"They've had enough," she said. "It's time to say that we're going to do what we have to do to protect our patients."

The hospitals say the nurses' proposals would cost them millions, and Schriner said the union's argument that patients are suffering just isn't true.

"The fact is that patients receive excellent quality of care in our hospitals. And for the union to be [saying] it wants to improve patient safety, then it should be proposing more flexibility and not putting in more rigid rules," she said.

Ripple Effect

Minnesota isn't the only state with labor unrest at its hospitals. Thousands of nurses in California were also poised to strike Thursday before a judge blocked that plan. A series of rallies were scheduled instead.

Gary Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., predicted a ripple across the country.

"I think one strike will lead to another and another and another and we'll have a huge national upheaval of nurses because they feel they've been left out of the decision-making at health care institutions," he said.

Chaison said nurses are becoming more militant at a time when unions in other industries are losing influence. As health care reform forces hospitals to cut costs, nurses are feeling the squeeze.

But Chaison said the striking nurses have do have one advantage: "Everyone likes nurses. It's very seldom that someone leaves a hospital and says, 'What wonderful administrators they have at the hospital.' But they do leave the hospital and say what wonderful nurses they were," he said. "And I think people will recognize that when nurses walk a picket line, they must have a serious problem."

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