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Duluth nurses vote today on contract, one-day strike

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Peg Krogh
Peg Krogh, a nurse at St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth, looks over voting materials prior to casting her vote to refuse or authorize a new contract Wednesday morning at United Methodist Church in Duluth, Minn. If the contract is rejected, an additional question on the ballot asks if a strike should be authorized.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

More than 1,300 Duluth nurses are voting today on final contract offers from the city's two hospital groups.   

Union leaders are urging members to reject the contracts, and authorize a one-day strike.  Negotiations have been stuck on the issue of staffing, with nurses wanting specific contract language to give them the authority to add staff on busy days.  

Penny Hawkins has dealt first hand with the challenge of matching just the right number of nurses to the number of patients in a hospital ward.  Hawkins is a nurse at Duluth's St. Mary's Medical Center, and she participated several years on a staffing task force.  

Hawkins said concerns about strained staffing became personal when her grandmother was an overnight patient  in Duluth's St Luke's hospital and needed help to go to the bathroom.

"And she put on a call light in the middle of the night, and nobody came," she said.  "Nobody came."

Hawkins isn't blaming the nurses at St. Luke's. She blames the hospitals for overlooking the danger represented by understaffed units.

"You know we bring up these stories and they seem shocked, and I think they're out of touch with what is happening on their floors," she said.

Penny Hawkins
SMDC nurse Penny Hawkins works in the oncology unit at SMDC Medical Center.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Negotiators with the Minnesota Nurses Association say their concerns over staffing are keeping them from endorsing new contract offers from Duluth's SMDC Health system, and St. Luke's Hospital.   SMDC employs about 930 registered nurses; St. Luke's 430. 

At a Wednesday press conference, SMDC nurse and MNA negotiator Steve Strand said the issue isn't money.  He said the hospitals can save money by adequately staffing units.

"It's proven time and again that the more nurses you have, the better care that's provided, and that it costs less money actually to put a little in now," Strand said.

Nurses say they need contract language that gives them some ability to stop admissions to understaffed units.  They call it a patient-safety issue.   

If this sounds familiar, the Duluth situation has many parallels with the Twin Cities nurses contract dispute earlier this summer. Staffing concerns and the threat of a one-day strike are hallmarks of both battles. And the same union is calling the plays. 

St. Mary's Hospital administration says they did try to address staffing in their proposed contract.   SMDC negotiations concluded last Friday morning after a marathon session Thursday.  On Friday, St. Mary's Duluth Clinic President and Chief Medical Officer Tom Patnoe expressed frustration that the talks ended without an agreement. 

Nursing vote ballot box
The ballot box for St. Luke's Hospital awaits votes at United Methodist Church early Wednesday morning in Duluth, Minn. as nurses voted to accept or reject the latest contract offer from the hospital. If the contract is rejected, an additional question on the ballot asks if a strike should be authorized.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

"It is disappointing.  We feel we have made a very good offer including addressing wages and particularly staffing concerns," Patnoe said. He said he still hopes nurses will accept the latest offer. 

Meanwhile, nurses with St. Luke's are particularly unhappy with what they call a 'code of conduct' the hospital wants in a new contract.  The nurses consider some of the restrictions as amounting to something of a gag rule.   Those negotiations wrapped up in the early hours of yesterday morning. 

In a written statement, St. Luke's President and CEO John Strange said the code is needed to participate in Medicare and Medicaid programs.   He said St. Luke's administration is disappointed, and has worked hard and listened carefully to St. Luke's nurses. 

Strand said a vote to reject the contracts automatically opens the door to a walkout. 

"Members would offer the negotiating team to authorize a one-day strike," he said.

The potential strike date is not set, but neither are additional negotiations with the hospitals if, as expected, Duluth nurses reject the contracts today.