Twin Cities nurses voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to authorize a one-day strike at 14 metro hospitals, raising the stakes for both sides in the struggle to reach a new contract.

More than 9,000 of the 12,000 nurses cast ballots and more than 90 percent voted to reject pension and labor proposals from the hospitals, union leaders reported.

Voting "no" to the hospital proposals is the equivalent of voting to authorize a strike, which could occur as early as June 1.

"The nurses have stood up like never before and cast a historic vote for patient safety," said John Nemo, spokesman for the Minnesota Nurses Association.

The hospitals said they were "disappointed" by the vote.

"The union has been putting an emphasis on a strike," said hospital spokeswoman Maureen Schriner. "We still think there's time for the contract to be settled and room for negotiation."

Even before the balloting ended, however, there was some disagreement over the duration of any strike.

Union officials announced earlier this week that they were switching their strategy away from an open-ended strike to a one-day action.

But Schriner said Wednesday that if the nurses do walk out, hospitals might not take them back after one day.

Since the hospitals will have to hire replacement nurses by the week, they would have "contractual obligations" to those workers, said Schriner. "We can't turn on a dime," she said.

If hospitals prevent nurses from returning, it would further raise tensions but probably wouldn't be illegal.

"That probably is a position the law's going to allow the hospitals to take," said Mark Mathison, who leads the labor practice team at the Minneapolis law firm Gray Plant Mooty. Mathison, who typically works with employers, is not involved in the current negotiations.

'Fabulous' turnout

As voting began Wednesday morning, many of the 12,000 nurses showed up wearing their nursing uniforms or red-and-white union T-shirts.

"The turnout's been fabulous," said James Bialke, the union's executive director. The only criticism he's heard about the proposed one-day walkout, he said, "is a lot of people who think it should be longer."

Technically, the nurses were voting on whether to accept new contract proposals from the hospitals. Union officials say the proposals are filled with concessions and would endanger patient care.

The hospitals, however, say they need more flexibility to assign nurses and to control costs by cutting pension contributions and other benefits.

The hospitals have offered wage increases of 0, 1 and 2 percent over three years, while the nurses have asked for 3 percent annual raises.

Mary Kay Speggen, a nurse at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, said she thinks most of her co-workers feel a one-day walkout is a "viable option."

"None of us wants to, or relishes the idea of going on strike," she said.

"My personal feeling is that we just need to go back to the bargaining table."

Several members said a one-day strike would be easier for their fellow nurses to accept, given their concerns about the economy and their patients.

"I think the significance of a one-day strike would be probably just as meaningful as a prolonged strike, even though I think a lot of us were willing to do it," said Peter Johnson, an emergency room nurse at the Riverside campus of the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview.

Union officials insist money isn't the issue.

"That's not going to be the issue that holds it up," said Nemo. "It's all about the staffing ratios and patient care." • 612-673-7384 • 612-673-7434