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Associated Press, Published May 19 2010

Minnesota nurses take strike vote on 14 Twin Cities hospitals

ST. PAUL (AP) — Thousands of nurses at 14 Twin Cities hospitals cast ballots Wednesday on contract proposals that amounted to a referendum on whether to strike as early as next month.

Disputes over pension benefits and staffing levels had nurses' union leaders predicting their members would vote to authorize a strike, which they say would be the largest nurses' strike in U.S. history. Results were expected late Wednesday.

The union said it would limit a strike to one day. Several nurses said they hoped their vote would lead to another round of negotiations.

"We want to be there for the kids," said Sandy Drummer, 61, a nurse at Children's Hospital in Minneapolis. "I don't want the kids to suffer for that, but they are going to suffer now or suffer later if we give in to (the hospitals') demands."

Drummer and other nurses said they were concerned the hospitals want flexibility to reduce the ratio of nurses to patients. The hospitals say there are ways to do that safely, but many nurses disagree.

"Technology does not replace nurses," said David Olson, 49, a nurse in the emergency department at Allina Hospital in Minneapolis who voted to authorize a strike. "It just doesn't happen."

The 12,000 nurses were voting on two proposals, one for a pension contact and one for a three-year labor contract. The Minnesota Nursing Association has recommended "no" votes on both. A "no" vote is the same as voting in favor of a strike.

Union spokesman John Nemo said the hospitals want to cut pension contributions by a third and want the ability to reduce nurse staffing to levels the union considers unsafe for patients.

"It's an issue that has been building, but now it's as bad as it's ever been," Nemo said of staffing. "Our nurses really feel they are stretched to their breaking point."

He said the contract would also allow the hospitals to move nurses from department to department to respond to patient demands. Nemo said nurses object because it could force them to work in areas they are not trained for.

Maureen Schriner, the spokeswoman for the six Twin Cities hospitals negotiating as a group, said they want flexibility to respond to the recession and to changes in the regulatory environment, patient expectations and patient populations.

She said the contract offer includes small pay increase for all nurses, who earn an average of $79,000 a year. It also includes pay raises with seniority gains and still permits nurses to work part time while getting full-time benefits. "This contract does not represent a major change," she said.

Schriner said the staffing issues are more complicated than the union claims. For example, she said there's more to patient safety than just the ratio of nurses to patients. Technology and procedural changes are just two of the other factors, she said.

She also rejected the idea that hospitals would move nurses into unfamiliar areas, saying doing so would be unsafe.

If two-thirds of the nurses vote for a strike, it could lead to what the MNA calls the largest nurses' strike in U.S. history. Union officials have said they would limit the strike to one day.

"It's going to have the maximum impact on the employer, but cause the minimum amount of pain to the patients," Nemo said. He said the date hasn't been picked, but will be June 1 or later. The current contract expires May 31.

While such a strike would affect thousands of patients, it wouldn't affect two of the largest Twin Cities hospitals, Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and Regions Hospital in St. Paul, nor two large suburban hospitals in Maple Grove Hospital and Woodwinds in Woodbury. Those hospitals don't have union nurses or a contract that is up for renewal.

Schriner said the hospitals were preparing for a walkout by lining up temporary nurses and finding various ways to reduce their patient populations on strike days.

She warned that if nurses do strike for a day, they won't necessarily be allowed to return to work the next day. It's likely the hospitals will keep their temporary nurses on until their contracts run out and patient populations rebound.

"When the nurses return to work isn't going to be determined by the union," she said.

Labor disputes between hospitals and their nurses aren't new in Minnesota. In 2001, about 1,350 nurses walked off the job at two Fairview hospitals and in 1984, 6,000 nurses struck the hospitals group for five weeks in what was then the nation's largest nurses strike.

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Online:

Minnesota Nurses Association: http://mnnurses.org/

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.