News

Minnesota nurses hold key advantages over hospitals in looming strike

With less than a week to go before 12,000 Minnesota nurses plan to strike, negotiations between the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) and six hospital chains in the Twin Cities for a new contract don’t seem to be going well. “Things are at a standstill,” said MNA spokesman John Nemo. So, a 24-hour strike is increasingly […]

With less than a week to go before 12,000 Minnesota nurses plan to strike, negotiations between the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) and six hospital chains in the Twin Cities for a new contract don’t seem to be going well.

“Things are at a standstill,” said MNA spokesman John Nemo.

So, a 24-hour strike is increasingly likely. But how effective would it be?

Judging from similar labor disputes in California, very effective.

Larry Garrett, a partner with law firm Schiff Hadin LLP in San Francisco, has represented hospitals in several contract fights with Bay Area nurses. For the nurses, the 24-hour strike is a popular tactic because it offers several advantages, he said.

A day-long strike can inflict significant economic damage on hospitals without costing nurses much in lost wages, Garrett said. By law, hospitals must remain open, strike or no strike, especially for emergency services.

That means hospitals must find replacement nurses from out of state, who typically sign three- to five-day contracts. Recruiting, paying, transporting and housing replacement nurses will cost the hospitals a significant amount of money, he said.

A brief strike also serves the nurses well from a public relations standpoint because the union can portray the move as a necessary tactic, but one that minimizes threats to patient safety.

So what happens after the 24-hour strike if there is still no progress? Nurses in San Francisco have engaged in additional 24-hour walkouts, sometimes “rolling strikes” that target only certain hospitals, Garrett said.

Nemo of the MNA says the union hasn’t thought that far ahead. And by law, the union can’t plan specific strikes in the future, he said.

In San Francisco, as in Minnesota, a key demand by the nurses union are preset staffing levels in which the hospitals must limit the number of patients each nurse can see. If the nurses can’t win that concession from hospitals, they can certainly push lawmakers to pass such a law as they have done in California, Garrett said.

The MNA has unsuccessfully lobbied for a nurse-patient ratio requirement at the state legislature, something fiercely opposed by Minnesota hospitals. But the union has a potential ace in the hole: Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

The MNA is backing Kelliher, a Democrat and the powerful Speaker of the House, in her quest for governor. Nemo said the union has yet to discuss such a bill with Kelliher.

However, should Kelliher, who made a high profile appearance at a union press conference last week, win the election, the governor will owe a large part of her victory to the nurses’ union.

Such a law would be a nice thank you note to the MNA.