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Associated Press, Published June 10 2010

12,000 Minnesota nurses launch 1-day walkout

MINNEAPOLIS — More than 12,000 nurses launched a one-day strike today at 14 Minnesota hospitals in a dispute over staffing levels and pension benefits.

Nurses wearing red T-shirts and carrying signs began walking picket lines at 7 a.m. at the hospitals, all in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. At Abbott Northwestern Hospital near downtown Minneapolis, one nurse serenaded several hundred others by playing "Amazing Grace" on bagpipes. Passing motorists honked horns.

A key issue in the dispute was the nurses' demand for strict nurse-to-patient ratios, rejected by hospitals as inflexible and unnecessary. Sue Stamness, a cardiology nurse at Abbott for 24 years, said patient safety was the nurses' top concern.

"Nobody is listening to what we are saying," Stamness said.

Picketing nurses waved signs that read, "We care. For you," and "RNs protecting patients."

Though touted by the union as the largest nurses' strike in U.S. history, the immediate effect was expected to be minimal. Hospitals hired replacement nurses, reduced patient levels and rescheduled elective surgeries, and two of the metro area's largest hospitals weren't involved in the strike.

Maureen Schriner, a spokeswoman for the hospitals, said all were open and that emergency and childbirth centers were fully staffed.

Plans by thousands more nurses in California for a simultaneous one-day strike were blocked earlier this week by a San Francisco judge.

Like other businesses, hospitals are trying to trim their budgets even as health care costs have been skyrocketing. Nurse pay and benefits are among hospitals' largest expenses. But nurses oppose proposed pension cuts and complain that staffing levels have been cut dangerously, making their jobs ever more stressful.

Patients are older and tend to be sicker, with multiple chronic conditions. Also, advancing medical technology is putting new demands on nurses, said Karen Higgins, a Massachusetts nurse and one of three presidents of National Nurses United, a national union that has enrolled 155,000 members since it formed barely six months ago.

"They've had enough," she said. "It's time to say that we're going to do what we have to do to protect our patients."

The National Nurses United wants rigid staffing ratios in all its nurse contracts, an idea hospitals resist as too expensive and inflexible.

The Minnesota and California negotiations are the largest since the NNU formed in December. The group's more aggressive message has found favor with nurses who say they haven't gotten enough help from their local unions. In the last six months, it has picked up 5,500 registered nurses in Texas, Nevada and Illinois.

Representatives of hospital groups in both Minnesota and California claim the national union is trying to provoke a headline-grabbing strike to grow its membership.

"We think their only goal at this is to have the largest nurses' strike in history," said Maureen Schriner, spokeswoman for the Twin Cities hospitals. Dwaine Duckett, of the University of California system, called the strike threats "part of a national strategy to gain negotiating leverage and demonstrate nationwide power."

The union is billing the strike as the nation's largest. In 1997, about 7,300 California nurses went on strike for two days in January and one day in February, according to the California union and published reports. For five weeks in 1984, about 6,000 Twin Cities nurses also went on strike.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.