Nurses in Duluth voted overwhelmingly to reject a new labor contract, setting the stage for a 24-hour strike.

More than 90 percent of nurses who voted from St. Mary's Medical Center and SMDC Medical Center, and more than 86 percent of those from St. Luke's Hospital voted to reject the contract offer primarily because it did not include language that would allow them to close a unit to new admissions if they felt overwhelmed.

"The hospitals left us with no choice," said Steve Strand, a registered nurse at SMDC Medical Center. "We can't handle another three years of one nurse taking care of eight, nine or even 12 patients at once. Neither can our patients. How many more patients have to sit in their own stool because nobody can answer their call light?"

The Minnesota Nurses Association had recommended that the 1,320 nurses who work for the three hospitals in Duluth reject the contract.

The latest contract offer also calls for wage increases of 0, 1 and 2 percent each year, something union negotiators have agreed to.

The Duluth vote came more than a month after Twin Cities hospitals and nurses settled their most contentious contract dispute in recent history.

In the Twin Cities, nurses walked out for 24 hours on June 10, forcing hospitals to fly in replacements and delay surgeries. The nurses eventually voted to strike indefinitely but reached a settlement at the eleventh hour.

The Twin Cities deal provided for a joint committee to explore staffing issues.

In Duluth, nurses are asking for the right to refuse additional patients if they feel they cannot safely care for them. That's a contractual right Twin Cities nurses already have. But the hospitals countered that nurses should consult managers on whether to close a unit to new admissions.

The Duluth nurses contract expired June 30.

The nurses will have to give the hospitals 10 days notice before striking. If that happens, hospital officials said they are prepared to stay open with replacement nurses.

Chen May Yee • 612-673-7434