St. Luke's, Essentia nurses take contract issues public

Minnesota Nurses Association members rally at City Hall, fill City Council chambers

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Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) president Mary Turner (center) addresses a crowd of MNA nurses and supporters before they move upstairs to the Duluth City Council meeting at City Hall Monday evening. Tyler Schank /

Marcia Swanson has been a nurse for almost 19 years, but her first on-the-job injury didn’t occur until May 10.

Swanson, 64, who works in the mental health inpatient unit at Essentia Health-Duluth, was one of four nurses injured when a patient went out of control, she said.

It’s an increasing peril at Duluth hospitals, Swanson said, a symptom of Essentia and St. Luke’s failure to adequately staff their units.

Swanson was among well over a hundred nurses — most wearing red T-shirts or red-and-white softball shirts with the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) logo — who assembled in the main floor of City Hall for a campaign-style rally on Monday and then filed two floors up to fill City Council chambers as five of their own spoke to council members.

Registered nurses’ contracts ran out at Essentia and St. Luke’s hospitals on June 30, Amber Verhel, a nurse at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center, told the council. Although progress has been made, the issues most important to nurses haven’t been addressed, she said.


“It has become more apparent at each of our bargaining sessions that our proposals to make sure there are enough nurses to care for patients are meeting resistance,” she said.

Susie Moss, a registered nurse in the intensive care unit at St. Luke’s, emphasized the need for more staffing.

“We’ve had sicker patients and an increased average daily census,” Moss said. “The simple truth is that we don’t have enough nurses to continue to care for the influx of patients. … When we ask the hospital to bring in more nurses, the hospital tells us to do more with less.”

In a statement, Essentia Health expressed confidence in the bargaining process.

“We are privileged to have some of the best nurses in the country, and we are committed to reaching a mutually agreeable settlement that continues to support excellence in patient care and a safe work environment,” spokeswoman Shannon Dahnke said. “Essentia Health and the MNA have a long history of reaching mutually acceptable agreements, dating back more than 50 years, and we are working through the regular process in a deliberate way to do so again.”

Eric Lohn, interim president and CEO of St. Luke's said in a statement that tentative agreements already had been reached with nurses on nearly 20 different subjects. "We are both confused and disappointed that rather than allowing the negotiating process to work, the MNA has refused to allow the assistance of a mediator and is instead bringing their concerns to a third party," he said.

Staffing decisions "are and should be made by a team of healthcare professionals, which always includes registered nurses, in real time," Lohn added.

Although they filled the chambers with their red shirts, the nurses listened quietly as their colleagues spoke, refraining from cheers or applause. Organizers earlier had cautioned them to respect the formality of the council meeting.


But cheers and applause broke out aplenty in the main-floor rally ahead of the meeting.

Mary Turner, a nurse at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, Minn., who is president of the MNA, fired up the ranks with impassioned oratory from the steps leading from the main floor.

“I feel your pain, and it’s the same pain that nurses are experiencing all over the country,” Turner told them, then drew vigorous applause as she added, “But this time, we are fighting back. … Nurses are the caretakers of society. They cannot do without us.”

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