By Michael Moore, Steve Share, and Barb Kucera of Workday Minnesota.
(PAI and Workday Minnesota) — The week-long strike by 5,000 nurses against hospitals in the Twin Cities drew national attention for the issues they raised, but it’s actually half of a 10,000-nurse forced walkout in three states, organized by their union, National Nurses United.
One key issue in the Minnesota strike against Allina Health Systems hospitals is the hospital chain’s demand that its nurses virtually give up their health insurance. Quality of patient care is also a top cause.
The Minnesota strike began Sunday morning June 19, as more than 200 nurses at United Hospital in St. Paul ended their regular night shift at 7 am – and joined the picket line. It’s scheduled to end on June 26.
“To see this many nurses on the outside, you know something is wrong on the inside,” United labor and delivery nurse Christine Hicks said.
Patient safety and quality care are the key issues for the other 5,000 NNU member nurses, in Massachusetts and California, the union said.
- 300 RNs at Watsonville (Calif.) Community Hospital began a 2-day walkout on June 22. Issues there are “chronic short-staffing, retaliation against RNs who speak out about patient care concerns, and management’s refusal to accept or address RNs’ written documentation of unsafe assignments.”
- The next day, 1,300 RNs at Kaiser Permanente’s flagship Los Angeles Medical Center will start a 4-day strike. Patient care, “especially inadequate staffing for the hospital’s tertiary care center, short staffing for critically ill children in the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit, and lack of proper staffing to allow nurses to take rest and meal breaks” are the top issues.
- The 3,300 RNs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston planned a 1-day walkout on June 27, the largest nurses strike in state history. One key issue there is patient safety for survivors of lung transplants and for chemotherapy patients. The other is the hospital’s “demand for lesser health coverage for new RN hires,” the union says.
“Many of our patients struggle to breathe,” says RN Maureen Tapper told the union.
The Minnesota Nurses Association was also forced to file labor law-breaking charges, formally called unfair labor practices, against Allina with the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board. The union said the hospital chain refused to turn over proper information about its health care elimination plans.
“Nurses are prepared to send a week-long message to Allina,” says Angela Becchetti, a registered nurse at Minneapolis’ Abbott Northwestern hospital. “This contract is about more than just health insurance. It’s about the staffing our patients receive. It’s about the safety of our fellow nurses from assault. It’s about the care our families depend on.”
Unlike the other metro area hospital systems, Allina did not settle a contract with nurses earlier this year. “They could have had labor peace like the other systems. They chose not to,” said Rose Roach, Minnesota Nurses Association executive director.
“Nurses are standing together to defend their affordable, quality health insurance plans. Since contract talks began in February, Allina has refused to budge from its demand that nurses give up four union-sponsored insurance options and transition into ‘core’ plans that cover most of Allina’s other employees,” the union said.
Barbara Slagg, a physical rehab nurse at United, added that Allina RNs are also upset by patient safety concerns and short-staffing, but the hospital chain’s management refuses to even discuss those issues “until we give up our health plans.”
“We hear a lot of our co-workers complaining about those plans,” Slagg said. “Some insurance plans seem cheaper until you actually access the care. Then you pay huge amounts out of pocket.”
Besides United Hospital in St. Paul and Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis, the Twin Cities RNs were forced to strike Unity Hospital and the Phillips Eye Institute in Minneapolis, Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids and Unity Hospital in Fridley.
At Abbott, retired physician Dr. Ray Scallen, 90, who worked 60 years there, joined them on the picket line. He sat encamped in a lawn chair along West 28th St. “I’m supporting these nurses 1,000 percent. They’re the heart and soul of the hospital. Anything I can do to help them, I will,” he told interviewers.
Nurses walking by called out to him: “Thank you, Dr. Scallen” and “Nice to see you, Dr. Scallen, thank you for supporting us.” Scallen, a World War II veteran explained that “This is the third [strike] I’ve done. What this is really about is busting the union. If they can do that, they’ve got complete control of the nurses.
“Nursing is tops in this hospital,” Scallen said, “the best in the city.” He added: “I want to keep it that way…I’ve known most of these nurses for many years. They’re wonderful, wonderful people. I don’t want them to lose their union – that’s what this is all about.”
“You figure out what it’s costing this corporation to bring in scab nurses, feed them, house them,” Scallen urged a reporter. “We miss him. He always supported us,” added striking nurse Vishakha Patel, of Andover. Other supporters joining the striking nurses included State Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, a former nurse and MNA member whose district includes Abbott Northwestern Hospital. “I’m so mad,” said Clark, a former nurse and MNA member whose district includes Abbott. “I can’t believe nurses have to fight for their own healthcare.”
In Massachusetts, Brigham and Women’s Hospital RNs say that under its billionaire corporate owner, the hospital has become less responsive to the needs of its patients and its nurses. Contract talks have gone nowhere for nine months. Its RNs also protest a proposed two-tier plan with lesser health coverage for new RNs, and “a meager wage proposal while the hospital CEO recently received an 18 percent pay hike.”
“We have reached the point where the hospital does not value and respect patients and nurses,” registered nurse Trish Powers told the union. “Under corporate owner Partners HealthCare, the Brigham cares more about profits and executive pay than providing safe patient care and treating its nurses fairly. We are prepared to strike, unless the hospital returns to the bargaining table and offers a fair settlement.”
Short-staffing – despite a state law that NNU pushed through several years ago – is the top issue at Kaiser’s Los Angeles hospital, the union says.
The hospital’s “pediatric ICU receives critically ill children from all over Southern California and yet is so short staffed that on a daily basis many there are so understaffed that nurses frequently are not able to take their breaks. Nurses are also seeking equitable wages with other CNA represented Kaiser RNs in Northern and Central California.”
“It breaks my heart to see families everyday struggling to pay co-payments and premiums, while Kaiser executives make millions of dollars,” Los Angeles RN Sandra Hanke told the union. “We need Kaiser to focus on caring for our patients and providing the adequate number of nurses to do that.”
In Watsonville, RNs have been in dispute with a series of for-profit chains for several years. The hospital’s latest owner is Quorum Health Systems, which shares lawyers and health plans with its predecessor as the hospital’s owner, a Tennessee firm, CHS.
“Hospital management’s profit-focused mentality is reflected in an outright refusal to address severe deterioration in patient care conditions as well as a hard-line demand for sweeping cuts in nurses’ contractual rights and protections,” the union says. “Short-staffing is outrageous from a patient safety standpoint,” Watsonville RN Sandy Flanagan told National Nurses United.
“The fact remains that chronic understaffing of nurses actually drives up healthcare costs. This corporation’s decision to cut patient care standards and work nurses dangerously short because it refuses to settle a safe contract comes at a dangerous cost to our community.”