Twin Cities nurses: Best way to avoid a strike is to be prepared

  • Article by: JOSEPHINE MARCOTTY and CHEN MAY YEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 17, 2010 - 7:14 AM

They also hope that labor law could strengthen their hand.

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Nurses that had been on strike returned to work at Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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If contract talks between registered nurses and Twin Cities hospitals resume next week, the union hopes to come to the table with the greatest possible leverage: an overwhelming strike vote.

That vote, scheduled for Monday, is the best way to ensure progress on a new contract without paying the enormous price of an open-ended walkout, union leaders are telling members at meetings this week and on the union Facebook website.

"If we all vote yes to strike, then a strike might not happen," said Stacy Logelin, a nurse at Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina.

At a meeting Wednesday, a union leader said the hospitals "are playing chicken with us." A strong strike vote on Monday "will give us leverage at the table," she said.

The Minnesota Nurses Association on Tuesday invited the hospitals to resume contract talks next week, but a spokeswoman for the hospitals said Wednesday that they needed another day to deliver a response.

Spokeswoman Maureen Schriner said the hospitals would be communicating directly with nurses on Thursday about their bargaining position.

The 12,000 nurses, who staged a one-day walkout last week, will vote Monday on whether to authorize an open-ended strike. If 66 percent vote yes, the union can call a strike after 10 days.

"It's like having a gun on the table," said Gary Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University in Massachusetts. "It doesn't mean you fire it, but it's loaded now."

The MNA has scheduled meetings throughout the week with nurses at all the hospitals to talk about the vote, the pending contract talks, and what to expect if a strike occurs.

"It's very emotional," said Nick McClellan, a nurse at Fairview Southdale. "Everyone has to stand together; that's the most important thing."

But some concerns bubbled up at a meeting Wednesday. One nurse stood up and said, "I'm a young nurse, and I talk to a lot of young nurses." She said she was worried that some would cross the picket line.

Others were still angry at their treatment by hospital officials before and after last week's walkout. They said they were "herded into a room" for hours.

"People are getting tired," Logelin said. "But I truly think the nurses union is strong."

Nurses say their core demand is formal nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, which they say would improve patient care. Hospitals are asking for greater flexibility, not less, in nurse scheduling.

Meanwhile, in a petition to the National Labor Relations Board, the union is describing last week's walkout and any future strike as an "unfair labor practices strike." If the board agrees, that means nurses would be able to collect unemployment compensation for their time off work, and the hospitals could not permanently replace them.

"Most unions make such claims to show their members that they are fighting not just for wages but because management did something bad and ... [that] we have the law on our side," Chaison said.

But the board could take weeks or months to make a ruling. The union has filed more than a dozen unfair labor practice charges against the hospitals; the claims are under investigation by the regional NLRB office, said regional director Marlin Osthus.

If he agrees with the union that the hospitals have violated federal labor law, then he would take the case before an administrative law judge. But, Osthus said, if he decides to take the charges to a judge, "everyone know it's likely that it would be found to be an unfair labor practices strike."

However, it would be declared such only at the time that striking nurses attempted to return to their jobs and were turned away by their employers, he said.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394 • marcotty@startribune.com Chen May Yee • 612-673-7434 • mychen@startribune.com

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