More than 12,000 nurses launched a one-day strike Thursday at 14 Minnesota hospitals in a dispute over nurse-patient ratios levels and pension benefits.
Nurses say they are being asked to care for too many patients at a time, and strict ratios are necessary to protect patient safety. The hospitals, all in the Minneapolis area, counter that patients are safe and that the walkout is a headline-grabbing stunt to build membership and clout for a national nurses union.
About the same number of nurses had planned a simultaneous strike in California over the same issues, but were blocked temporarily earlier this week by a San Francisco judge.
The Minnesota nurses walked off the job at 7 a.m. and onto picket lines at several sites. At Abbott Northwestern Hospital near downtown Minneapolis, one nurse serenaded several hundred others by playing "Amazing Grace" on bagpipes. Passing motorists honked horns, and red T-shirted nurses waved signs that read, "We care. For you" and "RNs protecting patients."
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.
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, reduced patient levels and some hospitals rescheduled elective surgeries. Staff of two of the metro area's largest hospitals weren't involved in the strike.
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.
The Minnesota and California negotiations are the largest since the National Nurses United union formed in December, combining the California Nurses Association, the Massachusetts Nurses Association and the United American Nurses, which was primarily Midwestern nurses.
In just six months, the union's simple message that more nurses means better patient care has found favor with nurses stressed out by caring for ever-sicker hospital patients and are frustrated with their local representation.
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. And advancing medical technology is putting new demands on nurses, said Karen Higgins, a Massachusetts nurse and one of three presidents of NNU. 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."
Representatives of hospital groups in both Minnesota and California claim the national union is trying to provoke a headline-grabbing strike to grow its membership.
"We think their only goal at this is to have the largest nurses' strike in history," Schriner said.
Dwaine Duckett, of the University of California system, called the strike threats "part of a national strategy to gain negotiating leverage and demonstrate nationwide power."
NNU officials denied that, and a spokesman said he didn't know where the next major contract dispute might be. "We're a long ways from settling in Minnesota or California," Chuck Idelson said. "We could well be facing further job actions in both places."
The union is billing the strike as the nation's largest. In 1997, about 7,300 California nurses went on strike for two days in January and one day in February, according to the California union and published reports. For five weeks in 1984, about 6,000 Twin Cities nurses also went on strike.
Minnesota nurse Jenni Foster said she believes in the call for increased staffing, but admitted she wasn't sure a one-day strike would accomplish anything.
"I just don't know if it's going to be effective," she said.
Minnesota Nurses Association: http://mnnurses.org/
Twin Cities Hospitals: http://www.twincitieshospitals.com/
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