15,000 Minnesota nurses still working without contract as union continues to block strike

It has been over a month since 12,500 Minneapolis-St. Paul nurses’ contracts expired on May 31, and over two weeks since 2,500 nurses in Duluth, Hastings and other Minnesota cities saw their contracts expire on June 30. Although various liberal and pseudo-left apologists for the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) claim the union has “come out swinging” against the hospital executives, the MNA has proven to be the biggest obstacle to health care workers fighting for safe staffing levels and wage increases large enough to protect them from the ravages of inflation.

Picketing nurses at M Health Fairview on June 1, 2022

Violating the basic principle of “no contract, no work” the MNA has blocked strike action and has not even scheduled a strike authorization vote. Instead, it is continuing behind-the-scenes talks with the hospital chains, which cannot result in anything but another pro-company deal.

Well aware of the anger of rank-and-file nurses, some Twin Cities hospital systems have proposed 8 percent wage increases in opposition to nurses’ demands for as much as 39 percent wage increases to compensate for decades of wage stagnation and the current inflation rate of 9.1 percent. Rejecting nurses’ just demands, a spokesperson for Fairview Hospital systems said the “demand of a 39 percent increase for wages and other increases simply are not realistic nor in the best interest of our community.”

Why is not in the best interest of the community to pay nurses enough money so they can carry out their life-saving work without worrying whether they can keep a roof over the heads? Paying a living wage and reducing workloads would also attract far more nurses and nursing students. Stopping the exodus of burned-out nurses and ending the nursing shortage is certainly in the interests of patients and health care workers in the community. It is only unrealistic to hospital executives who want to squeeze even more out nurses because they are more concerned with corporate profit than the “community.”

According to the report by the Star Tribune, the top executives of Minnesota’s 12 “nonprofits” pocketed millions in pay and other compensation as the pandemic ripped through hospitals and nurses and other health care workers battled COVID-19 and the lack of PPE. Despite management’s claims that they would reduce executive compensation, Craig Samitt, chief executive at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, got a 108 percent increase in 2020 to nearly $3.5 million; Essentia Health, which eliminated 900 jobs, paid CEO David Herman nearly $2.8 million in compensation, an increase of 13 percent; Mayo Clinic’s Gianrico Farrugia got $2.7 million; and Fairview Health Services’ James Hereford and Allina Health’s Penny Wheeler got $2.6 million each.

These executives and the powerful corporate and financial interests behind them are ruthlessly defending their class interests. Instead of uniting nurses across the state and mobilizing broader sections of workers to break through the intransigence of the hospital bosses, the MNA is engaged in impotent public relations stunts. This includes the MNA’s “Patients Before Profits” petition to the executives and boards of several hospital systems across Minnesota. MNA officials know appeals to the consciences of multimillionaire executives will fall on deaf ears but they want to divert the energy of nurses into dead end appeals, above all, to the Democratic Party.

The MNA’s web page includes virtually nothing about the current struggle. Instead it includes the worthless statements from various Democrats running for office, including many who showed up for photo-ops during last month’s “informational picketing” stunt.

But the Democrats, no less than the Republicans, have overseen decades of attacks on health care workers and the right to health care. Obama’s misnamed Affordable Care Act did nothing to reduce the domination of the giant hospital, insurance, pharmaceutical and medical equipment monopolies over health care. Instead it incentivized cost cutting, increased workloads and other attacks on health care workers.

The pandemic has proven beyond a doubt that both big-business parties prioritize profit over human life. Far from ending Trump’s herd immunity COVID policy, Biden has fully adopted this homicidal policy and disarmed the public in the face of a new surge of Omicron subvariants. Both parties are responsible for the loss of more than one million people, including thousands of nurses and health care workers, and the debilitation of millions more.

The conditions of nurses will not be improved through fruitless appeals to corporate-backed politicians or more “labor-management” staffing committees, such as the one proposed in the “Keeping Nurses at the Bedside Act.” In the end all of these proposals subordinate the needs of health care workers and patients to profit considerations.

A real fight is necessary and absolutely possible. But the prerequisite of any struggle is for rank-and-file nurses to take the conduct of the struggle into their own hands. This means building rank-and-file committees, made up of the most class-conscious and militant nurses from around the state, to outline the demands that nurses need and elaborate a strategy to fight for them.

These demands should include:

  • An inflation-busting 20 percent wage increase each year of the contract, on top of annual cost-of-living adjustments to counteract inflation.
  • No out-of-pocket costs for family health care plans.
  • Hire thousands of new nurses to guarantee nurse-to-patient ratios, including 1:1 for the ICU, 1:2 for the IICU and 1:3 for Medsurge.

Nurses must demand an immediate strike vote and an end to backroom negotiations by the MNA. All talks must be live-streamed and overseen by a rank-and-file committee. If the above demands are not met by July 24, a statewide strike should be launched by July 31.

At the same time, the rank-and-file committee should establish lines of communication with nurses and health care workers across the US and internationally. Of the 265 work stoppages a study by Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations recorded in 2021, health care workers, including nurses, accounted for 33 percent of them. Tens of thousands of nurses in California, New York and other states are also fighting similar battles.

Earlier this year, rank-and-file nurses organized a movement, independent of the unions, to defend Vanderbilt University Medical Center nurse RaDonda Vaught against the effort to scapegoat her for medical errors, which are the result of understaffing and work overloads.

Instead of fruitless and self-defeating appeals to hospital executives and bought-and-paid-for politicians, nurses must appeal to all sections of the working class to support their fight. Nurses speak for all of society and have popular support in their counteroffensive against the dictates of the banks and corporations. The wave of opposition among nurses must be translated into a counteroffensive. Nurses must prepare strike action now, secure the support of other workers, including teachers, manufacturing and service workers.

This must be combined with a political struggle to take profit out of medicine by nationalizing the major health care monopolies and establishing a socialist medical system.