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Twin Ports nurses plan picket for contract changes

Essentia and St. Luke's nurses will hold informational pickets outside the hospitals June 21 asking the health care systems to protect patients and fairly compensate nurses in new contracts.

Minnesota Nurses Association members gather
Members of the Minnesota Nurses Association and supporters gathered in the Holiday Center's Superior Street Rotunda in Duluth on Thursday to announce their intent to picket June 21. Essentia and St. Luke's nurses are in the midst of renegotiating contracts.
Laura Butterbrodt / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Nurses from Essentia and St. Luke's will hold informational pickets June 21, members of the Minnesota Nurses Association announced Thursday morning. Both health care systems are in the midst of renegotiating nursing contracts.

Over 100 people attended the news conference and rally Thursday morning in the Holiday Center's Superior Street Rotunda, where nurses from St. Luke's and Essentia spoke about their goals for the new contracts. Chris Rubesch, a registered nurse at Essentia and the first vice president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, said nurses have experienced staffing shortages that have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which is harmful to both the patients' well-being and staff morale.

The Minnesota Nurses Association held informational pickets to bring attention to ongoing contract negotiations.

"It's time for hospital executives with million-dollar salaries to put patients before profits by agreeing to fair contracts that will retain nurses at the bedside, compensate us fairly and give us the resources we need to provide world-class patient care," Rubesch said. "Our repeated meeting with management, our pleas for help and petitions have had no effect. It's clear to us that we need to take public action to get management's attention."

He said there are a number of proposals that have been presented, including recruitment incentives, retention investments and requirements for hospitals to hire additional staff. Andrea Rubesch, an oncology and hospice nurse at St. Luke's, said nurses are also fighting for fair wages and bolstered emergency preparedness plans.

Chris Rubesch said he expects to see a "sea of red" representing the MNA during the June 21 informational picket. Nurses and community members are expected to be outside both hospitals. Scheduled work at the health care systems will not be disrupted during the picket.

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In statements, both St. Luke's and Essentia said they are committed to reaching agreements in the contract negotiations.

"We respect our nurses and the role they play in helping to advance Essentia Health’s mission of making a healthy difference in people’s lives," Essentia said in its statement. "We are focusing on our discussions at the bargaining table because that is where solutions are found. Essentia will continue to negotiate in good faith and we look forward to reaching a mutually beneficial agreement.

"Our nurses are valued members of our care teams at Essentia Health, and we respect their right to conduct informational picketing as part of a labor union. Our top priority in everything we do is to continue providing our patients with the kind of expert care they expect and deserve."

St. Luke's said in its statement: "We are disappointed that in the midst of good faith negotiations, the Minnesota Nurses Association has chosen to take this approach. While still fully engaged in negotiating an equitable agreement with our nurses in the coming weeks, we will be educating the communities we serve on the value we place in and the support we provide to our patients, staff and communities."

Nurses from Essentia Health-Moose Lake spoke at the news conference, expressing their frustration with their contract negotiations. The hospital workers' existing union contracts were not recognized by Essentia when it purchased the former Mercy Hospital. They are now in the 20th month of negotiations and have not yet reached an agreement.

The partnership will bring stability and more resources to Mercy Hospital.

Larissa Hubbartt, an intensive care unit nurse at St. Luke's, and Steve Strand, an Essentia intensive care unit nurse with 40 years of experience, said they've seen more patients than ever before, and those patients are sicker than ever before. Despite that, they have not seen any increase in staff to accommodate for patient needs.

"We have come to work to take care of them, working extra every time there's been a need," Strand said. "The hospital, instead of trying to help us in regards to that need, they want us to work more. Their solution is for nurses to work more and work harder. They don't seem to respect us."

Current contracts for Twin Ports nurses expire June 30. Chris Rubesch said even if agreements in negotiations are not met following the informational picket, nurses will continue to take care of patients and continue to fight for their rights.

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"I think the turnout today shows nurses are fired up and ready to take action," he said.

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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