Spokespeople for the Minnesota Nurses Association have stated that if a strike is authorized by today's vote it will last a single day. Many observers may find that announcement confusing. Strikes are almost always fought to the bitter end, with one side or the other capitulating or compromising.
Past strikes against Twin Cities hospitals were long, drawn-out, bitter battles. Both the 1984 and the 2001 strikes were long conflicts that ended in concessions to the nurses regarding staffing and work-rule improvements, but with the nurses giving in on security issues.
The issues in contention today are work rules and pensions. Economic issues do not loom as large today as they did in the past.
The nurses' strategy of mounting an effective one-day strike of all the hospitals engaged in contract negotiations makes much sense. First and foremost, it shows the determination of the nurses to make a dramatic demonstration of unity and solidarity. At the same time, it reinforces their contention that they are striking in the interests of their patients by going out for only one day.
Secondly, the nurses are putting the hospital administrators in a difficult position. To avoid dangerous disruptions of patient care they must provide replacement staff for that day or use supervisory staff as nurses. Either option, even for a day, is difficult.
Replacement nurses, known as travelers or scabs, are hired at high cost on a weekly rate, even though they work for only one day. Supervisory staff is far too few and mainly too untrained to serve patients adequately for even one day.
A one-day strike would also highlight the main contention of the nurses -- that the work-rule changes are necessary to guarantee high quality patient care and that their strike is really for the benefit of the patients.
Even the changes proposed by the hospitals in the nurses' pension plan would negatively affect patients, by drying up the attractiveness of nursing as a profession and keeping good people from becoming nurses.
This threat of a one-day strike, MNA strategists believe, thus puts the burden for reaching a contract agreement upon the hospitals. They further hope that the public will hear and support their assertion that they are seeking, through their contract demands, to improve patient care.
Although it seems like a winning strategy, the times are volatile, and the strategy might very well fail. At the very least it would call attention to the issues that the nurses are raising.
Hy Berman, of Minneapolis, is a retired University of Minnesota history professor who has specialized in the labor movement.