National Nurses United at its founding convention last December vowed to create a unified agenda and push for staffing ratios at every local affiliate. They're making good on that pledge in Minnesota, and they are showing themselves to be formidable. Pay attention to this fight, because it may soon come to a hospital near you.
Last week, 12,000 members of the NNU-affiliated Minnesota Nurses Association at 14 Minneapolis-area hospitals overwhelmingly voted to authorize a one-day walkout on June 1 unless their contract demands are met. Linda Hamilton, president of the MNA, says the fight is about patient safety, not money.
"What are we fighting for? The simple answer is this: We're fighting for you. We're fighting for any patient who ever walks through the doors of one of our hospitals," Hamilton wrote in a May 15 editorial in the Pioneer Press.
"The math doesn't lie: The thinner nurses are spread in hospitals, the greater number of patients who die… Despite what the Twin Cities hospital systems want readers to believe, this contract fight is not about economics. For nurses, this is much more personal than a paycheck or a pension benefit. This is about our patients," Hamilton wrote. "Everybody knows a nurse, and everybody knows nurses are not greedy."
Hamilton may be sincere. Or, you can argue that staffing ratios are just a clever way for nurses' unions to protect jobs and increase membership under the guise of "patient safety." Whether or not a specific level of nurse staffing has any affect on patient safety or quality of care is one of the most hotly contested issues in healthcare.
There is also the blatant contradiction of a walkout in the name of patient safety. How can the MNA say that staffing ratios are critical to patient safety, and then threaten to abandon the patients they claim to be "fighting for?" Who bears the responsibility if a patient is harmed by this walkout? Is this about patient safety, or isn't it?
Still, Hamilton's argument is compelling for the general public because the union has made its grievance a fight for the little guy. The cause of patient safety is something that resonates with everyone. Who hasn't been either a patient or visited a loved one in a hospital, in pain, at their most vulnerable? This chord strikes deep.
The local news videos of rank-and-file MNA nurses marching in front of their hospitals, wearing their uniforms, waving picket signs, and demanding patient safety gets prime air time. Nice visuals! Very powerful!
Hamilton skillfully works the corporate greed angle when she complains that the six "nonprofit" (quotations hers) health systems made a combined $700 million in profits during recession-wracked 2009, and spent money on huge executive pay hikes and frivolous projects that add nothing to patient care.
The 14 Twin Cities hospitals have mounted their own media counteroffensive, and they've done an admirable job. They make themselves available to the media. They've set up a website and posted the union's contract demands with each health system, and each health system's counter-offer. They've banded together to get their message out, using amiable spokeswoman Maureen Schriner to quickly address media queries. (Their first spokeswoman was fired earlier this month after local news reported that she had pleaded guilty in 2006 to the misappropriation of about $15,000 at a South Dakota hospital. D'oh!)