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On heels of walkout, resolution in support of nurses divides Duluth City Council

Councilors voted to remove the proposed resolution from their agenda.

Nurses walking on the picket line.
A Minnesota Nurses Association member gives two thumbs up to others walking the picket line outside St. Mary’s Medical Center on Sept. 12. Approximately 15,000 nurses in the Twin Ports and the Twin Cities walked off work for three days to increase pressure at the negotiating table.
Steve Kuchera / 2022 file / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — A resolution calling for a fair contract for the Minnesota Nurses Association prompted a divisive debate among City Council members recently.

Councilors Mike Mayou, Azrin Awal and Gary Anderson brought the resolution forward only to have their colleagues vote to remove it from the agenda before it could even be considered.

Councilor Roz Randorf expressed concern that a resolution of support for the MNA’s negotiation efforts could have resulted in future expectations.

“There are dozens and dozens of unions we support locally. And my biggest thing is: Where, as a council, do we get actively involved in negotiating?” she said.

Randorf noted that all nine sitting councilors had already sent a letter to the CEOs of Essentia Health and St. Luke’s urging them to negotiate with local nurses and to not let a three-day strike devolve into a lockout.

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MORE COVERAGE
Despite an interruption from a fire near Essentia St. Mary's hospital, hundreds of nurses and community supporters rallied at both Essentia and St. Luke's to close out the third and final day of the strike and pickets.
The three-day strike continued Wednesday with pickets outside downtown Duluth hospitals and outside Essentia St. Mary's in Superior.
The health care system claims the Minnesota Nurses Association failed to include Essentia Health-Duluth in its list of facilities that received a strike notice.
Members Only
The Minnesota Nurses Association, which announced plans for 15,000 nurses to strike for three days starting Sept. 12, said Thursday they still plan to hold their strike, despite the charges.
The strike, which includes 15,000 nurses across 16 hospitals in the Twin Cities, Twin Ports and Moose Lake, will begin Sept. 12.
The vote came one day after 15,000 Minnesota Nurses Association nurses in the Twin Ports and Twin Cities voted to authorize a strike.
Minnesota Nurses Association nurses state low staff levels and retention rates, which put patients at risk, inspired the vote as they continue to negotiate new contracts. Additionally, Essentia Health nurses are writing to the Benedictine Sisters on the Board of Directors, asking them to advocate for staff and patients.
Nurses, elected officials and labor leaders held a news conference Wednesday to voice concerns employees have about the lack of support for worker attempts to organize.

“We put a solid stake in the ground saying we believe that everyone needs to come to the table in good faith and bargain. We want our nurses taken care of, and we want our hospitals to thrive. We need a solid, healthy medical community,” she said.

In a seldom-exercised move, using one of the council’s standing rules of operation, councilors who shared Randorf’s concerns chose to shelve the resolution Sept. 22 — four days before it was slated to go to an actual vote at a public meeting.

At the next meeting, Anderson expressed his dismay with his colleagues’ Sept. 22 actions, noting that in more than 6½ years on the council, he had never seen such a maneuver.

“Not one, not two, but three councilors brought forward a resolution that we thought was important to air in the view of the public, not at an agenda session but at a council meeting,” he said. “I believe this community expects that our debates and our votes will happen at our regular meetings.”

Council President Arik Forsman, who voted to remove the resolution in question from the meeting’s agenda, pointed to the letter councilors previously sent to the leadership of both local hospitals and said his colleagues had “already expressed pretty clear support for our nurses.”

“There were also points brought up about the precedent of the council choosing to wade into private negotiations and what that would potentially lead to in the future,” he said.

While councilors, by and large, profess to support local labor unions and their efforts to negotiate fair contracts, Forsman said: “It would seem unfair to weigh in on one and then choose not to weigh in on others.”

He said passing such a resolution could potentially redefine what is and is not considered council business.

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Mayou was unable to attend the Sept. 22 agenda session meeting due to a case of COVID-19, from which he has since recovered. He said it was frustrating to listen to the council debate without being able to participate in the discussion.

“I didn’t even get to have a voice in that conversation, and the conversation had ended by Monday essentially on that specific item,” Mayou said. “Do we want this to be the way our council operates in the future?”

As for the possibility of repeat use of Rule 20 by the council, Anderson said: ”I’m not that concerned to be truthful, because this was a one-time deal. I’ve never seen it before, and I don’t expect to see it in the future.”

Randorf continues to defend the council’s decision to remove the resolution from its agenda, especially as a vote against it for legitimate reasons could have been misconstrued as a lack of support for nurses.

“It was better for the council and it was quite honestly better for the nurses to take it off the table completely. So, utilizing Rule 20 in our council rules seemed to me like a pretty dog-gone good idea,” she said.

Forsman agreed that the public perception of bringing the resolution to a vote could have been tricky to navigate.

“From what I heard in that discussion, if councilors chose to vote ‘no,’ it would have been more about the precedent it was setting and what constitutes council business. But it would have been taken as being not supportive of what the nurses are asking for,” he said.

Although councilors took a pass on considering the resolution, dozens of nurses dressed in red MNA shirts packed City Council chambers Monday evening, sending several speakers to the podium to ask for public support in their ongoing negotiations with Duluth's two local hospital systems.

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Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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