Twelve-thousand Twin Cities nurses are facing a difficult choice -- whether to approve a potentially indefinite strike, or return to the bargaining table without the leverage of a threatened walkout.
Nurses from the six different hospital systems are meeting all week with union officials in advance of their strike vote next Monday, and making preparations for a possible strike.
On Wednesday, Childrens Hospitals nurses in bright, blue scrubs stood chatting between the cars parked outside the Ramada Plaza Hotel in Northeast Minneapolis.
The mood was visibly tense as an early morning meeting wrapped up and more nurses arrived for the next meeting. Some wore street clothes and juggled babies in their arms.
"Some people are very afraid and don't know what to do and this meeting will help them maybe make a decision," said oncology nurse Tracy Curtis, who has been with Childrens Hospitals for 12 years.
The union really said start curbing your spending, start saving for a rainy day or a day of downpour so I have been trying to follow that.Nurse Megan Sederstrom
Curtis says she and her husband are nervous about how a long strike would affect their budget. Despite her financial fears, Curtis says she plans to vote yes to a second strike on Monday.
"I mean, I wish it didn't have to come to this, I really do. Our jobs are stressful enough without the added stress of feeling like we may be leaving our patients' bedside again. That was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do," she said. "I don't want to do that again ... but I feel like I am being forced to do that... I feel like I have to."
Conversations with more than a dozen nurses this week didn't turn up a single likely no-vote, but many said they have colleagues who are still undecided.
For Curtis, there's no question that the central issue in the dispute -- nurse staffing levels -- is worth striking over. Curtis says she and her husband are willing to go without her paycheck for as long as it takes to force the hospital to make concessions.
"We are a team. We have had one paycheck, we have had no paychecks in our lives before! And we have seen it to the other side," she said. "I'm not trying to downplay that because it's a big thing but you know -- this too will pass. It will."
Her eyes welling with tears, Curtis headed towards the hotel entrance for the union meeting.
A few cars away in the parking lot, two other nurses headed out of the day's first meeting, bleary-eyed, just off the overnight shift.
One of them, Megan, who didn't want to give her last name for fear of retribution from the union or the hospital, said she knows living on just her husband's income will not be easy. She's already called her mortgage company and some of her other creditors to warn them she may have a hardship.
"Like with me, I've already been prepared. I've talked to my day care about it so if anything happens I can pull my daughter out of day care and I don't have to pay for day care," she said. "We just have to take those kinds of measures and my husband has been working all the overtime he can."
Even if they suffer financially, Megan said she won't back down from a strike.
In the hallway outside the closed meeting, Megan Sederstrom wore a bright red union t-shirt, a big smile, and the confidence that the outcome of the strike vote is assured.
"I think we are to the point where we need to make sure this happens and we need to make sure this contract gets passed," Sederstrom said. "Our main tenets have to do with patient safety -- that is what we have been fighting for from the beginning, so I do feel that as much as there are nerves and fear through the group, I think the majority of us are going to vote for the strike and will stand united."
Sederstrom has been saving up for about a year to weather a potentially open-ended strike. "The union really said start curbing your spending, start saving for a rainy day or a day of downpour so I have been trying to follow that, and the rest will just be really watching what I spend," she said.
In the parking lot, nurse Deborah Nichols is anything but tentative about the need for a strike. She says the nurses have to show they are serious about their demands for staffing, wage and other issues.
"Well, I'm ready but I am just praying for a solution to this where we wouldn't have to strike but somehow we could get them to negotiate," she said.
After last week's one-day strike produced no movement from the hospitals, the union has asked them to return to the bargaining table next week after the strike vote -- and the union has promised to delay setting a strike deadline if negotiations show progress.
So far, the hospitals have yet to say whether they'll agree to more talks.