Nurses in Duluth are a step closer to a one-day strike.
Their overwhelming vote Wednesday was a strong stand against contract offers from the city's two hospital systems.
Registered nurses voted throughout the day at a church overlooking the Duluth harbor. The Minnesota Nurses Association would not say how many nurses voted, but called it a very good turnout. Union officials say of those who voted, 90 percent of nurses at St. Mary's-Duluth Clinic voted against the contract from the hospital. At St. Luke's Hospital, 86 percent of the nurses voted no.
Negotiator Steve Strand said the vote shows the nurses are united.
"I was worried to start the day," Strand said. "But then, as things filtered through, and with the stories that were told the past week, there seemed to be a coalescence of the staff and the members in the last week, and I think it isn't really that surprising."
Those stories Strand mentioned, are about the times when there isn't enough staff for the patient load. Nurses say the issue in this labor dispute is not wages, but their ability to care for patients. Nurses want language in their contract that gives them the authority to freeze admissions to understaffed units.
The larger hospital, St. Mary's-Duluth Clinic offered to set up a committee to design staffing plans, but the hospital wanted to reserve final decisions for the management.
Patricia Dwyer, a nurse at St. Mary's-Duluth Clinic, said the nurses want to work as a team.
"I think they need to listen to the nurses," Dwyer said. "We're the first line, we're the patient advocates, and they need to have a mediator there which will help us get to a mediated and consensus kind of idea that we can work at this, we can try that, but it doesn't just fall on them."
These issues are similar to those which sent Twin Cities nurses out on strike for one day in June. They settled on a contract that did not fully satisfy some of their concerns.
The Duluth vote gives the union permission to call a one-day strike.
Negotiator Steve Strand said everyone hopes there won't be a strike, but members have shown they are willing to walk.
"Because again, if the employer does not want to listen to what we have to say regarding our unity in regards to rejecting their offer, if they don't want to come back, then we're willing to take the next step to go forward to do that," he said.
Both hospitals issued statements after the vote, expressing disappointment that nurses rejected their contract offers, and holding out hope for new negotiations.
In an interview before the result was known, St. Luke's Hospital chief medical officer Dr. Gary Peterson said no talks have been scheduled.
"We are planning for any contingency in the future; we expect to continue to offer the high quality and safe, compassionate care to our patients that they've come to expect," Peterson said. "So we are planning for just about any contingency."
The union says it would give ten-day notice before calling a strike. It's up to federal mediators to call the next negotiating session.