The Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) reached an agreement June 15 with Children’s Hospitals of Minnesota, one of the six hospitals in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro-region currently in negotiations over new contracts covering 13,000 registered nurses. Only one day after the 1,500 nurses at Children’s voted overwhelmingly to reject the previous agreement and authorize the MNA to call a strike, negotiators reached a tentative agreement and the MNA is calling for a ratification vote on June 20.
Among the contested issues are wages and healthcare insurance. The new tentative agreement calls for annual wage increases of 3 percent, 3 percent and 2.25 percent over the course of the three-year agreement. This is only a fraction of a percent increase from the previous proposal of a 2.5 percent, 2.25 percent and 2 percent pay rise.
Children’s management has been able to set healthcare premiums at will. For nurses, premiums have increased 100 to 200 percent since 2010. In the current contract negotiations, nurses were insisting that premiums decrease. The union abandoned that proposal and asked instead for a freeze over the next three years.
In the final agreement, the union further retreated and has agreed to share increased costs equally with the company on the most comprehensive healthcare plan, and for a second-tier plan the company will pay 70 percent and the nurses 30 percent.
The MNA has called the healthcare plan a huge win, while touting the wage agreement as the largest of the last decade. It must be stated bluntly that the proposal is a sellout, especially given the continual rise in Children’s revenues during the same period.
The strategy of the MNA of conducting separate negotiations with other Minneapolis hospitals such as Allina Health, Fairview Health, HealthEast, Methodist Hospital and North Memorial Health Hospital is bankrupt when the issues facing nurses are all the same. Meanwhile the MNA is rushing to hold a ratification vote at Children’s with only short notice, not giving nurses sufficient time to review the contract.
This flies in the face of demands by nurses for a united fight by all 13,000 staff against all the hospitals in order to wage a unified struggle.
This is no mere mistake in judgment on the part of the MNA. The MNA is determined to prevent nurses from bringing to bear their full strength against the hospitals.
The rush to ratify the Children’s tentative agreement cannot be justified under conditions where management negotiators for the six hospitals have brazenly dragged out negotiations, made insulting proposals to nurses, and, in some cases hurled provocative comments toward bargaining units.
By signing agreements piecemeal a deliberate attempt is being made that will leave individual units isolated and left to fight alone.
The MNA has already sent a clear signal to management that it will not wage a serious struggle. On its website it states that in the event of a contract rejection and strike vote at Children’s, the MNA asks rhetorically, “How long will we strike for?” Answering its own question it adds, “We don’t know yet, but we know it will not be open-ended like Allina in 2016.”
In 2016, 4,800 Allina nurses in Minneapolis struck for more than one month, repeatedly voting down sellout contract proposals brought forward by the MNA. Eventually the MNA announced a settlement, taking down picket lines before nurses could vote, then claimed ratification of the agreement, which was essentially the same as nurses had repeatedly rejected.
The use of limited, one or multiple day strikes, is a tactic that unions across the United States have long employed not to pressure employers, but to allow workers to release their pent-up anger. Such strikes allow the unions to strike a militant posture while doing nothing to advance the struggle of workers.
One area nurse told the World Socialist Web Site that there is also the possibility that the MNA will, in the event of several contract rejections, call a wave of limited strikes that will not overlap. This, too, would be no substitute for a united struggle.
The unions have long abandoned the policy of company-wide and industry-wide contracts. Decades ago it was common for workers to wage united struggles for master agreements that covered hundreds of thousands of workers and provided uniform wages and benefits.
However, it has been many decades since the unions have launched a nationwide strike in any industry. In its place they have adopted the program of union-management collaboration based on slashing workers’ wages and benefits in order to ensure the profit interests of American capitalism. This has included a ferocious drive to lower healthcare costs by attacking benefits.
Workers must reject the divide-and-conquer policies of the MNA and fight for a united struggle. Each hospital should elect rank-and-file committees of the most militant nurses. These committees should call an emergency meeting to bring together delegations from each hospital to come up with a strategy to prevent the fracturing of the 13,000 nurses’ solidarity.
* No ratification of agreements until all sections of nurses have attained satisfactory contracts.
* In the event of a strike, it should be an unlimited strike of all 13,000 nurses.
At the same time, the rank-and-file committees should strive to bring together all hospital and healthcare workers to prosecute this struggle and reach out to other sections of the working class.
The defense of the conditions of nurses is part of a broader struggle to secure the right of quality healthcare for all. This requires the fight for a socialist program. The hospitals, corporations and banks are seeking to restructure healthcare on a class basis, making access dependent on ability to pay.
The working class must fight to establish healthcare as a social right. This means breaking the grip of the giant health insurance companies and pharmaceuticals by placing the entire healthcare industry under the democratic public ownership of the working class. This means a break with the pro-corporate Democrats and Republicans and the building of an independent party of the working class.