A contentious contract battle between Twin Cities nurses and 14 metro-area hospitals has ended, with nurses voting overwhelmingly to approve a new labor agreement.
The nurses' union estimates that 90 percent of its members who cast ballots Tuesday accepted the terms of their three-year contract. In a separate vote, 99 percent of nurses approved their pension agreement. Final vote tallies for each of the six hospital systems are expected to be released later Wednesday.
The ratification vote came on what was to be the first day of an open-ended strike involving 12,000 Twin Cities nurses. That walkout was canceled late last week when union and hospital negotiators reached a compromise. The nurses did walk out for one day last month to press their demands.
The Minnesota Nurses Association predicted its members would approve the deal, but nurse negotiator Cindy Olson still expressed relief when the vote results were announced shortly before midnight.
"I'm happy we're not going on strike. I'm too tired to be too celebrant, but yeah, I think we've made good strides," Olson said. "I think we've done a lot of things that haven't happened in contracts for a long time. We've maintained and we can move forward."
Nurses got a three-year contract that left all of their benefits intact -- a feat that few unions have been able to duplicate during the recession.
They preserved their pension, health care and seniority benefits. There's no raise in the first year, but they'll receive 1 and 2 percent raises in the second and third years of their contract. Nurses who reach longevity milestones during that time period will also qualify for step increases that can add several percent more to their raises.
But nurses did not secure what they said was their No. 1 contract priority -- fixed nurse-to-patient staffing ratios. That concession didn't go over well with some nurses who thought the union caved on staffing.
Olson said it's telling that approximately 10 percent of nurses voted to reject the contract.
"It says that there are still people very passionate and upset about where patient care is right now," she said.
Olson said the nurses' battle for firm staffing ratios will continue. Nurses say they will make a good faith effort to work with their employers to address their workload concerns. But the union has also suggested that it might take its ratio request to the state Legislature.
Alice Swan, associate dean of nursing at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, said California has had mixed results with legislatively mandated staffing ratios.
"If you take it to the legislative arena, that takes it further away from the unit or from the facility, and so I think that would be something to think about," Swan said. "I think the most opportunity is in the facility, within the structure to assure patient safety."
It also may be difficult to convince legislators to get involved in the staffing issue. California nurses lobbied their lawmakers for 12 years before getting a ratio system passed into law.
Harley Shaiken, who studies labor issues as a professor at the University of California Berkeley, said Twin Cities nurses may have more luck with the public, which could in turn put pressure on hospitals. He said patients have gotten the message that nurses are stretched too thin.
"What that means is if the nurse isn't there, they're not going to blame the nurse necessarily," Shaiken said. "They're going to blame the hospital. That would be a sea change."
That's not necessarily bad for all hospitals. Shaiken said facilities with better ratios could publicize their staffing numbers to gain a competitive advantage.
Twin Cities hospitals said in a statement that they welcome the ratified agreements, but there's still a lot of hard work ahead.
Spokeswoman Maureen Schriner said settling the contract doesn't solve the considerable financial challenges that hospitals face related to health reform, advances in technology and an aging population.
"Change is going to be the leading word on anybody's agenda from now, for the next few years," Schriner said. "There's going to be lots of changes taking place, and we're looking forward to having our nurses working with us on that."
That likely means that many of the same issues that were hotly contested during these contract talks will reappear in three years when the nurses' new contract expires.