Though outnumbered, some Twin Cities nurses resist call to strike

  • Article by: CHEN MAY YEE and MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 28, 2010 - 1:13 PM

Outnumbered by union members supporting a walkout on July 6, dissenters begin to speak out against tactics but struggle to be heard.

For months, the nurse watched as her union and her employer waged an increasingly bitter contract fight.

Then the conflict came to a head: The Minnesota Nurses Association called for an open-ended strike against 14 Twin Cities hospitals, including her own.

Finally, she thought, enough is enough.

"We say we're striking for patients," said the nurse, who works at Children's Hospital in Minneapolis and asked to remain anonymous. "But we're sticking them right in the middle of this nasty fight. ... It's not the right thing to do."

Nurses like her are clearly a minority in a 12,000-member union that has mobilized with remarkable discipline and vigor in recent weeks. Nurses have turned out by the thousands for picketing, picnics and other shows of solidarity. In a statement Friday, the union noted: "We are a family of 12,000 nurses. Like any family we may have times where a few of us disagree on the best approach to a certain situation. But we are a democratic association, and more than 87 percent of our nurses voted on June 21 to call for an open-ended strike."

But as they draw within days of what could be a historic walkout, some dissenters are saying it's time to speak out, voicing concerns about their union's aggressive tactics, what they consider reckless accusations of unsafe staffing, and the risks of walking away from good jobs in a bad economy. Even if their numbers are small, they could prove pivotal if they refuse to support a strike called for July 6.

Among nurses who spoke to the Star Tribune in recent days, all except one asked to remain anonymous, saying they fear retaliation. Some have decided to resign from the union.

"The atmosphere has changed so much," said the Children's nurse. "The nurses are on different sides -- the striking versus not-striking."

A few weeks ago, she shared some of her doubts in an online comment on Startribune.com, under the moniker "anurse." Someone suggested she start a blog.

"I didn't know what a blog was," she said. But she quickly learned. About a week ago, she created a blog called nostrikefornurses.

Her blog immediately became a counterpoint to the influential MNA Facebook page, where most comments support the union.

"I felt the nurses who are not supporting this strike in MN need a place to chat and ask questions they may have in the days ahead. I hope this helps!" she wrote.

On Friday, the day the strike was announced, nostrikefornurses had about 5,000 page views.

"Thanks so much for this forum -- a place where we can safely express opinions without the fear of retaliation from the union supporters," one reader commented. Wrote another: "I too am totally disheartened by all this. ... I have seen some very good friends turn into someone I hardly know over the past 4-6 weeks. Anyone else experiencing this??"

Aaron Sojourner, a labor relations expert at the University of Minnesota, says dissenting voices are no surprise as a democratic organization faces a series of excruciating decisions.

"The minority [always] feels in a difficult position, that they are not being heard," Sojourner said. "It's the nature of the beast in a democracy; there's a majority and there's a minority, and somebody's not happy."

In its statement, the union said, "The reality is, none of us want to go out on strike. All of us want a resolution to this situation and it is our hope we can reach an agreement with the Twin Cities Hospitals before July 6."

Professional doubts

Keith Rischer, a nurse at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, is open about his objections.

"I believe a strike is ethically unprofessional behavior," said Rischer, who works as a critical-care nurse. "We're not blue-collar workers; we're health care professionals, and we need to act like it."

Rischer, who has been a nurse for 26 years, cited a recent study showing that hospital deaths rose by 19.4 percent during nurses' strikes in New York from 1984 to 2004. "I'm very uncomfortable with the idea of using this tactic," he said. Patients are not like widgets on an assembly line, he said.

Rischer recently returned from Haiti as part of a medical team volunteering after the massive earthquake. "I have renewed thankfulness for so many things I used to take for granted: my limbs, permanent shelter, living in a nation so blessed and employment with benefits. Though I do not agree with every proposal of [the hospitals], we must remember that as professional nurses, our primary commitment is to our patients, not our union."

Others say the union has crossed the line by claiming that the hospitals are unsafe.

"I'm not anti what the union's trying to do, I'm anti how the union is doing it," said a male nurse who works at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale. "I think [people] are led to believe that things are worse than they actually are because the union's been pushing these horror stories."

He readily admits that some shifts are so busy that nurses need extra help, but he said the union's answer -- mandatory patient-to-nurse ratios -- is costly and impractical. "I don't believe that anyone thinks it's reasonable," he said. The hospitals say it would cost $250 million a year. "[That] could put us out of business."

A 10-year nurse veteran at Children's Hospital worries that the union has tainted the hospital's reputation with accusations of unsafe staffing. "It makes my heart sick," she said, noting that Children's is known as a national leader. "The public trusts in Children's.''

The skeptics also say the union needs to be more flexible, in this recession, on wages and benefits. The union is fighting the hospitals' efforts to cut pension contributions and health care benefits.

"This economy does not support a strike," said another pediatric nurse, who also works at Children's. "The hospitals -- bottom line -- can't afford what the nurses are asking for."

Some fear their colleagues are a bit naive about the risks. "The union's got everyone convinced that [a strike is] not going to happen," that it's just a bargaining tool, said the North Memorial nurse. He's not so sure. "If I end up walking a picket line, I'm going to run out of money a lot sooner than the hospital."

He noted that the nurses union has done "great things," in the past, boosting nurses' salaries and prestige. "This time around, I think they're overstepping their bounds," he said. "They're going from helping the workers ... to trying to run the hospitals."

John Nemo, the MNA spokesman, said the majority's stand is clear, but that the union is respectful of all points of view.

"Everyone's welcome to have their opinion," he said.

maura.lerner@startribune.com • 612-673-7384 mychen@startribune.com • 612-673-7434

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