Bemidji nurses authorize strike

Nurses vote
Nurses from Sanford Bemidji Hospital came to Bemidji's Diamond Point Park on Thursday, July 28, 2011 to cast their ballots on whether to accept or reject a contract offer from hospital management. Nurses overwhelmingly rejected the contract, and they may decide in the near future to go on strike.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Nurses at Sanford Bemidji Hospital overwhelmingly rejected a contract offer Thursday and instead voted to authorize a strike. The vote affects about 230 registered nurses in Bemidji who've been without a contract since February.

Hospital officials, meanwhile, say they're willing to sit down for further talks.

Union officials say Sanford nurses decisively rejected a contract offer they described as full of concessions. While the offer included a 2 percent wage increase in each of the next three years, it also killed nurses pensions and made changes to health insurance options.

"I feel that we should fight for what we have and not take less at this time," said Jackie Gibbons, a registered nurse in the hospital's imaging department who voted to reject the plan. "I would like to keep our pension. That's the biggest thing for me."

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For Gibbons and other nurses under the age of 46, the three-year contract offer from Sanford would have eliminated their pension in favor of a 401k plan. Nurses 46 and older could keep their pension.

Gibbons' husband is also an RN at Sanford. She says they're both prepared to strike.

"Yes, we would both strike and have no income during that time. I think Sanford is a good organization," she said. "They're good for Bemidji. I think, though, that they have millions of dollars... and I think some of that can support the nurses."

Sanford Bemidji Hospital
About 230 nurses employed at Sanford Bemidji Hospital voted Thursday, July 28, 2011 on whether to accept or reject a contract offer from hospital management. Nurses overwhelmingly rejected the contract, and they may decide in the near future to go on strike.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The Sanford nurses are represented by the Minnesota Nurses Association. Union negotiators have been in talks with Sanford management since April. They say the talks came to an abrupt end on Monday when they were handed a contract offer to take to their members.

Peter Danielson, a Sanford nurse who chairs the union's bargaining team, says the contract offered by management reduced vacation hours for new hires and would have made health insurance more expensive for many of the nurses.

Federal law requires that hospitals be given a 10-day formal notice before a strike can occur. Danielson says there are no specific plans about how or when nurses in Bemidji would walk off the job. His goal is to get management back to the bargaining table before a strike is necessary.

"We just want to settle the contract. We don't want to strike and have to picket," Danielson said. "We were backed into this corner and felt that we had no other choice but to show them how serious we were about these issues."

Sanford Health is the largest rural, not-for-profit health care system in the country. It's based in Sioux Falls and Fargo, but Sanford expanded it's footprint in Minnesota in just the past few years.

Not long after the corporation arrived in Bemidji, it announced that it would purchase naming rights for the city's new events center and hockey arena for $2 million.

But Sanford also has big plans to invest in Bemidji's hospital. New investments in the facilities, staff and technologies are expected to total $75 million in the next decade.

Some Bemidji nurses say they're frustrated that Sanford has millions to spend in the community, yet their contract asks nurses to make big concessions.

Hospital officials say the offer was "fair and equitable." Joy Johnson, chief operating officer, says the economy and new health care laws are putting increased financial pressure on the health care industry. She says that's had an impact on contract negotiations.

"We seek to have fair and equitable market-based salaries and benefits," said Johnson. "We certainly have achieved that and any proposals we've made maintain that. But we have to recognize that we need a benefit and salary structure that's sustainable in the environment."

Anita Norden is an RN in the hospital's labor and delivery unit. Norden says things were fine when the hospital was locally owned by an independent nonprofit. She says the last thing nurses want to do is go backwards.

"We had a very nice contract under our previous employer, and I think that Sanford could step up to the plate and know that we're all good nurses and that we're worth that, and that we can do what they want us to do, as long as they're not back-pedaling and giving us something less than what we had before," Norden said.

This is Sanford's first contract negotiation with members of the Minnesota Nurses Association. The next union negotiations with Sanford will begin next month at the hospital in Thief River Falls.