Feelings raw as nurses return from strike

  • Article by: JOSEPHINE MARCOTTY and CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 11, 2010 - 8:01 PM

Union accuses 3 hospitals of locking out some nurses. Even though the historic strike is technically over, the acrimony and emotional fallout are, if anything, worse.

Fairview Health System and North Memorial Hospital said nurse staffing and patient numbers were back to usual levels Friday afternoon, and other Twin Cities hospitals said life was getting back to normal one day after a massive strike by union nurses.

The nurses saw it differently. The Minnesota Nurses Association accused Abbott Northwestern and Children's Hospitals and Clinics of an illegal lockout for refusing to take all nurses back immediately, and a union organizer said she was assaulted by a security guard during a confrontation at North Memorial.

In short, even though the historic strike is technically over, the acrimony and emotional fallout are, if anything, worse than before.

"Today, we wake up to a new reality," said Ken Paulus, chief executive officer of Allina Hospitals & Clinics in a letter to employees Friday. "We will be a different organization than the one we were on Wednesday ... the Allina we knew before is gone."

Allina, which owns Abbott Northwestern and United Hospitals, said it was at 30 to 40 percent of capacity because it reduced patient numbers ahead of Thursday's strike. Officials said they expected Allina to be back to normal by next week.

The picketing nurses braved a night of pouring rain and thunderstorms before laying down their soaked signs at 7 a.m. Their return to work was orderly, but feelings were raw.

"I've never seen more security officers in my life," said Sue Truhler, a diabetes educator at United Hospital in St. Paul. "We were treated like criminals.''

She filed into a conference room at 7 a.m. with dozens of nurses, who were gradually called up to their floors to start their shifts. United spokeswoman Terri Dresen said the hospital had 187 patients, about half its usual census.

At North Memorial, union organizer Ona Keller said she was injured by a security guard who grabbed her arm while ordering her to leave the hospital as nurses were being sent up to their floors. She said she was treated at the emergency room and left with her arm in a sling. She said she intended to file criminal charges against the guard and an unfair labor practice charge against the hospital. "He escalated the situation unnecessarily," she said. "It was pretty painful."

Officials from North Memorial said her accusations were unfounded. "No action was taken by Robbinsdale Police," they said in a statement. An internal investigation, including interviews with witnesses, found "there was no merit to the allegation," the statement said.

Union officials said they would also file unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board against Children's and Abbott because some nurses who showed up for work were told to go home. They described it as a selective lockout.

"It was an incredibly degrading experience for our nurses," said Nellie Munn, a nurse and union rep at Children's.

Hospital officials said they were following a plan announced before the strike -- calling nurses back as needed. A spokeswoman said the hospitals asked the union to negotiate a back-to-work process as part of contract talks before the strike, but the union refused.

"There were no surprises," said hospitals spokesperson Maureen Schriner. "The union is demonstrating that it is interested in conflict and controversy rather than negotiating."

The one-day strike, the largest in U.S. history, was called to inflict financial pain on the hospitals and call attention to nurse staffing and patient care. The nurses' contract expired May 31. The two sides have disagreed on a union proposal for formal nurse-to-patient staffing, which the nurses say would improve patient care, and over wages and benefits.

"Hopefully, people realize that we are serious and patient care is important to us," said Linda Schaefer, 61, an emergency room nurse at United.

As of late Friday, no new talks had been scheduled.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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