Twin Cities nurses, hospitals prepare for one-day walkout

Talks broke down Friday night, and both sides readied for a strike Thursday morning.

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Minnesota Nurses Association staffer Mary Jo George carries on Friday signs made for the upcoming one-day strike.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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A Twin Cities nurses strike seemed all but inevitable after talks broke down Friday afternoon between the Minnesota Nurses Association and 14 Twin Cities hospitals, with each side blaming the other for refusing to compromise.

Before the afternoon was out, the nurses and hospitals were shifting gears to prepare for the scheduled one-day walkout, which would start at 7 a.m. Thursday.

Hospital officials are vowing to operate as normally as possible, saying they hope to keep patient disruption to a minimum with the help of thousands of replacement nurses. They said they expect to have plenty of staff to care for emergency patients, women in labor and other urgent cases.

Some hospitals are rescheduling elective procedures, but others predict it will be business as usual. "If there is a work stoppage, all our hospitals will be ready," said Ryan Davenport, a spokesman for Fairview Health Services. "Unless they hear something differently from their doctors, [patients] should plan on keeping their appointments."

Up to 12,000 union nurses are threatening to walk out in what they say is a showdown over staffing concerns and proposed benefit cuts. They chose a one-day strike, they said, to inflict maximum pain on their employers -- forcing them to hire expensive temporary replacements -- without exposing patients to an open-ended work stoppage. The hospitals, however, have said they might not call nurses back to work immediately.

Dr. Peter Dehnel, a Minneapolis pediatrician, called the prospect of a strike "distressing,'' especially for parents. The two Children's hospitals in Minneapolis and St. Paul would be affected by a strike. "Children's is taking all the precautions they can," Dehnel said, including postponing surgeries and procedures. It's also bringing in nurses from its nonunion clinics to help out.

Meanwhile, nonunion hospitals say they're preparing for an upsurge in patients.

"We've been doing surge planning, using disaster planning models -- not that the strike is a disaster," said Dr. Lynne Lillie, medical director for Woodwinds hospital in Woodbury. She said the hospital, whose nurses are not union members, is prepared to call in extra staff as needed, just as it would in a medical emergency. Woodwinds -- known for its holistic approach to medicine -- is even bringing in massage therapists and harp music to ease the stress on staff.

Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, which is not affected by the negotiations, is bracing for a 20 to 30 percent increase in patients, said Kathy Wilde, chief nursing officer. "It's not anything different than what we would do if we were in the influenza season," she said.

Contract talks, which began in March, broke off abruptly Friday afternoon in the last scheduled day of bargaining.

Within hours, the union's official blog sounded an alert: "Union brothers and sisters, please get ready to strike."

Nellie Munn, a nurse at Children's and a member the bargaining team, said talks broke down after about five hours, when the hospitals indicated they "were not interested in any single aspect, not a single word, of any of our proposals."

The hospitals issued a statement saying they "do not want a strike." But they blamed the union for insisting on proposals that the hospitals had rejected in March, particularly a call for strict staffing ratios.

Maureen Schriner, a spokeswoman for the hospitals, blamed the nurses' national union for trying to push the staffing ratios in Minnesota as part of a national agenda. She said the union, National Nurses United, is going for "the Guinness Book of World Records" by scheduling two one-day strikes on the same day, in California and Minnesota.

A spokesman for the national union called Schriner's comments "pretty disdainful."

"The [hospitals] ought to be addressing the concerns that the nurses have raised with them repeatedly ... and stop looking for excuses" said Charles Idelson, who also represents the California Nurses Association. He said staffing ratios "are core issues for nurses and patients all over the United States."

The two sides are also at odds over wages and benefits. The nurses earn, on average, about $38 an hour, or nearly $79,000 year for full-time work, Schriner said. However, the vast majority of nurses work part time, earning an average of $62,600 a year. The hospitals want to reduce pension and health benefits, while offering yearly raises of 0, 1 and 2 percent. The nurses have asked for 3 percent yearly raises, and oppose the benefit cuts.

In May, the nurses rejected the hospitals' last contract proposal by more than 90 percent and authorized a one-day strike. The union has not said what would happen if the one-day walkout doesn't achieve its goals.

This week, the hospitals started notifying nurses that they must wait to be called back following a walkout, and that if they show up anyway, they will be sent home.

"They still have their jobs," Schriner said, but they may not be needed right away. "It will depend on patient volumes."

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

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