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Minnesota nurses vote in favor of strike

The vote among 15,000 Minnesota Nurses Association members was "overwhelmingly" in favor of the strike, according to MNA.

Chris Rubesch, RN at Essentia, gives an update after the Minnesota Nurses Association voted to authorize a strike
Chris Rubesch, registered nurse at Essentia Health, gives an update after the Minnesota Nurses Association voted to authorize a strike during a press conference at the Duluth Labor Temple on Tuesday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — Nurses in the Minnesota Nurses Association, including those in the Twin Ports, have voted to authorize a strike, the MNA announced late Monday night.

The 15,000 MNA members in the Twin Ports and Twin Cities voted "overwhelmingly" in favor of the strike, according to the news release from MNA. The vote was taken among nurses at 15 hospitals under seven hospital systems. Nurse negotiation leaders are now authorized to call a strike following a 10-day notice to hospital employers.

Chris Rubesch, RN at Essentia, talks about moving forward after the Minnesota Nurses Association voted to authorize a strike
Chris Rubesch, registered nurse at Essentia Health, talks about moving forward after the Minnesota Nurses Association voted to authorize a strike during a news conference at the Duluth Labor Temple on Tuesday morning.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Chris Rubesch, first vice president of MNA and a registered nurse at Essentia Health, said he couldn't release specific vote tallies, but it was very clear nurses were in favor of the strike.

"I cannot use enough descriptor words to emphasize how overwhelming both turnout and the vote was," Rubesch said. "I mean, this was not even close."

The strike would be the first time Twin Cities and Twin Ports nurses took such an action together in contract negotiations. Rubesch said the 15 hospitals involved in the vote are in discussions for when a strike could happen and what the strike would entail. He said if the notice for a strike is given, all participating MNA bodies would strike at the same time. Hospitals affected by the strike would be announced at the time the 10-day notice is given.

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Keandra Schmacher, RN at Essentia, speaks about staffing concerns at a press conference
Keandra Schmacher, registered nurse at Essentia Health, speaks about staffing concerns Tuesday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

In statements, Essentia Health and St. Luke's said they are creating contingency plans in anticipation of MNA-member nurses going on strike to ensure there will still be patient care available.

"We are disappointed by the vote because we believe no one wins in a strike — and we have a shared responsibility to provide quality care to the patients and communities we are privileged to serve," Essentia said in the statement. "Please note, however, that this vote does not mean a strike is imminent."

Nurses have been in contract negotiations across the state since March, and have been working without contracts since July 1. The nurses recently took a vote of no confidence in several Minnesota hospital executives, including St. Luke's co-CEOs Eric Lohn and Nick Van Deelen.

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.

MNA members have spoken out several times about their frustrations with administration, including unsafe staffing levels and low retention rates. Nurses picketed in June to help raise awareness for the struggles they hope administration will address in their new contracts.

In a recent statement, Lohn and Van Deelen said St. Luke’s has offered a 10.25% raise for nurses over three years in its most recent negotiating session, while MNA is asking for a 36.5% increase over that time.

Andrea Rubesch, RN at St. Luke’s, speaks at a press conference at the Duluth Labor Temple
Andrea Rubesch, registered nurse at St. Luke’s, speaks at a news conference at the Duluth Labor Temple on Tuesday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

"We look forward to our next MNA negotiating session this Thursday, and we remain committed to bargaining in good faith to reach a fair and reasonable contract," St. Luke's said in a statement Tuesday. "We are proud to recognize the important contributions of our nurses and all employees by offering competitive compensation packages and exceptional benefits, while also striving to keep healthcare affordable for our community. ... We will again ask MNA to agree to inviting a mediator to join us at the table. Mediators are trained professionals who can assist in successfully negotiating contracts when the two sides are far apart."

At a news conference Tuesday morning, Rubesch said staffing is the main issue statewide that has led nurses to take action, and he said St. Luke's is deflecting from that issue by talking only about wages.

Larissa Hubbart, co-chair for St. Luke's MNA and a registered nurse at St. Luke's, said executives in negotiation meetings haven't engaged in MNA's attempts to talk about increasing staffing or giving nurses decision-making power in their new contracts.

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Emily Kniskern, RN at St. Luke’s, talks about some of her concerns at a press conference at the Duluth Labor Temple
Emily Kniskern, registered nurse at St. Luke’s, talks about some of her concerns at a news conference at the Duluth Labor Temple on Tuesday after the Minnesota Nurses Association voted to authorize a strike.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Emily Kniskern, who is a nurse in St. Luke's pediatric and labor and delivery units, said short staffing has caused her to call five pregnant women this month to tell them they don't have enough staff to induce their labor, even when the induction was scheduled for a medical safety reason.

"We deserve care that we can count on," Kniskern said. "When we respect nurses, when we hire enough nurses, when we make the hospital a place where nurses want to work, we can provide the best care in the world. But we need nurses at the bedside, and that is why we voted 'yes.'"

Lake View Hospital to hold picket

Nurses at St. Luke's Two Harbors Lake View Hospital will be holding an informational picket Friday to draw attention to low staffing levels, nurse Jerri Swardstrom announced during the MNA news conference Tuesday. The picket will be held from noon to 6 p.m. Friday with the intention of having Lake View administration acknowledge and find solutions for the staffing concerns nurses have raised to them.

Jerri Swardstrom, an RN at Lakeview Hospital in Two Harbors, talks about an upcoming informational picket in Two Harbors
Jerri Swardstrom, registered nurse at Lake View Hospital in Two Harbors, talks about an upcoming informational picket in Two Harbors.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Swardstrom said acute inpatient stays have increased 65% from 2018 to 2021. In that time, outpatient services have increased 87% and emergency room and urgent care visits increased 28%. Infusion therapy services were also added.

"There has been minimal RN recruitment to help bridge the demands in nursing to support this kind of institutional role," Swardstrom said. "By the end of this year, we project an annual deficit of more than 5,000 hours needing to be filled, which equates to a 15% increase in our current staff."

This story was updated at 8:05 a.m. Aug. 16 to reflect the latest offer from St. Luke's to MNA and again at 11:20 a.m. Aug. 16 to add comments from nurses, St. Luke's and Essentia. It was originally posted at 11:56 p.m. Aug. 15.

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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