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Minnesota nurses announce intent to strike over holidays

The strike will begin Dec. 11, unless tentative contract agreements are made with hospitals before then. Nurses at Essentia and Twin Cities hospitals would strike for three weeks, until Dec. 31. St. Luke's nurses plan to strike indefinitely.

Woman holding a baby speaks at a news conference.
Andrea Rubesch holds her son, Oskar, while speaking at the Minnesota Nurses Association news conference in Duluth on Thursday. Rubesch, a St. Luke’s nurse and a member of the union negotiating team, noted that she was pregnant with Oskar when this process began and that he will be 5 months old Saturday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The Minnesota Nurses Association has announced intent to strike at 16 hospitals in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The morning after nurses voted in favor of unfair labor practice strike authorization, MNA representatives announced plans for a three-week strike at Twin Cities hospitals and Essentia hospitals in Duluth and Superior, and an indefinite strike at St. Luke's hospitals in Duluth and Two Harbors.

Depending on progress made during negotiations in the next 10 days, the strike would begin at 7 a.m. Dec. 11. Nurses from Essentia, M Health Fairview, Health Partners Methodist, Children's, Allina and North Memorial would strike through 7 a.m. Dec. 31, or until a tentative contract agreement is made.

Nurses at St. Luke's Duluth hospital and Lake View hospital in Two Harbors announced their intent to strike, also beginning Dec. 11, but no end date was given.

The length of the strike was determined by input from nurses in their respective bargaining unit.

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Woman speaking.
Corrine Schraufnagel, left, listens to fellow speaker Lisa Hulstrom during the Duluth MNA news conference Thursday. Schraufnagel works at Essentia, Hulstrom at St. Luke’s.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“Each bargaining unit gets to make their decision,” Lisa Hulstrom, a nurse at St. Luke’s, said during a news conference Thursday morning. “So at each table, people get to decide what’s best for their facility, for their nurses.”

Flanked by several dozen MNA members, union members at the news conference spoke about the shortage of workers each facility was experiencing.

The news conference was held in the Holiday Center in Downtown Duluth, where St. Luke’s management and the union’s bargaining team were meeting for negotiations. Essentia management and the union were also in negotiations Thursday, but those meetings were being held on the hospital’s Duluth campus.

Corrine Schraufnagel, a nurse at Essentia–St. Mary’s Medical Center, said staffing levels were so low at the cardiac unit last weekend — five nurses for 39 patients and no certified nursing assistants — that patients had to be assisted to the bathroom by their own family members and that a patient only got one walk in their three-day hospital stay because no staff members were available.

Hulstrom added that a recent overnight shift at the St. Luke’s medical-surgical unit only had two traveling nurses for 18 patients. A “reasonable assignment” for a nurse in that unit is three to five patients, she said.

“When nurses say that staffing levels are unsafe, this is what we mean,” Schraufnagel said. “We mean that our patients are not receiving the quality of care that our communities and our families deserve. They are not receiving the quality of care that you deserve.”

People gathered for a news conference.
MNA members and supporters hold a news conference in Duluth’s Holiday Center on Thursday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

MNA is required to give hospitals a 10-day notice of their intent to strike before they can strike. Nurses announced their intent during news conferences Thursday morning in St. Paul and Duluth. On Wednesday, an "overwhelming" majority of MNA members voted in favor of authorizing a strike, according to MNA. The union would not provide specific vote totals or percentages of the strike authorization vote Thursday.

St. Luke's released the following statement Thursday afternoon about the day's negotiation session:

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"St. Luke’s is committed to working towards a resolution with the MNA. During today’s negotiations, we made significant progress, and we will stay at the table as long as that continues, including through tonight, into tomorrow and through the weekend."

In a Thursday afternoon statement, Essentia acknowledged the talent its nurses have and said the hospital is grateful for their dedication to patient care; however, the hospital system does not believe a strike is the right way to move negotiations forward.

"Through negotiations, our goal has always been to protect the emotional and financial well-being of our nurses," Essentia said in the statement. "As we saw in September, it takes an emotional toll on all involved, including the communities for whom we have a shared responsibility to care for. And it doesn’t move us any closer to a resolution.

"We’d rather renew the focus on the work being done at the bargaining table, because that is where solutions occur. We believe an agreement that benefits our nurses and ensures the sustainability of high-quality care in the communities we are privileged to serve is within reach."

In statements from Allina and the Twin Cities Hospital Group of Children's, M Health Fairview, North Memorial and Health Partners Methodist, the hospitals noted their "shock" and "deep disappointment" at MNA's decision to strike during the triple-threat of infection surges of COVID-19, RSV and influenza currently straining hospitals across the state.

"To be clear, the union is deciding to further withdraw critical health care resources at a time when the community’s healthcare needs are high and at the risk of those who are depending on us for care," Allina said in its statement Thursday. "MNA leadership continues to focus on disruption at the expense of spending meaningful time at the bargaining table. We have made some progress and believe we can reach agreement on the outstanding issues with focused negotiations."

Andrea Rubesch, a nurse at St. Luke’s and a member of the bargaining committee, said mediators were standing by for Thursday’s negotiations but had not yet been asked to intervene.

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"It has barely been a week since the union finally agreed to bring expert mediators to assist the parties in reaching mutually agreeable solutions," read the statement from the Twin Cities Hospital Group. "Not one meeting with mediators has even occurred yet, but the union has elected to pursue a strike rather than settlement. It is clear that their recent statements in support of mediation were disingenuous. The nurses’ union has completely failed to give the mediation process time to work and instead has chosen to put the union’s agenda before the care of our patients."

Man pumps fist in air.
Northeast Minnesota Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO President Alan Netland leads a chant at the end of the Duluth MNA news conference Thursday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

According to recent bargaining minutes from Essentia, the nurses and hospital have yet to agree on wage increases, employee leave and language regarding staffing. Essentia's most recent wage proposal, which was presented Nov. 15, offers a tiered wage increase system with up to a 13% raise, depending on how many years a nurse has worked there.

At St. Luke's, nurses were asking for an across-the-board 23% raise over three years as of their last meeting Nov. 23, according to St. Luke's bargaining website. St. Luke's countered with a 13% wage increase over three years, and included a second proposal option with a condensed wage scale with new steps and bonuses at certain work anniversaries.

The committees also continue to negotiate on staffing processes, including float nurse limitations and more approval power for nurses, pandemic preparedness plans, transfer timelines and straight shifts. Twin Cities hospital negotiations are in similar stages, according to hospital bargaining websites.

MNA members said their No. 1 priority in negotiations has been and continues to be safe staffing numbers and protective language in the proposals.

MNA members at the Twin Cities, Essentia and St. Luke's Duluth hospitals went on a three-day strike in September. This will be Lake View hospital's first time striking over these contract negotiations.

Asked if any progress had been made since then, Hulstrom said: “We’re here today, so we’re not close enough.”

The Twin Cities Hospital Group reassured patients in its statement that the hospitals will still be open to provide care, but noted that some non-critical care appointments may be rescheduled. Patients should expect longer-than-normal wait times for health services.

This story was last updated at 5:15 p.m. Dec. 1 with comments from St. Luke's and Essentia. It was originally posted at 9:45 a.m. Dec. 1.

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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