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Throngs of nurses turn out as strike vote begins.

Minneapolis Star Tribune, 5/19/10

By Maura Lerner
Minneapolis Star Tribune
May 19, 2010

Nurses turned out by the hundreds this morning to vote on a possible one-day strike at 14 Twin Cities hospitals, and many said the only suspense is about when the walkout will take place.

"We have to do what we have to do," said Becky White, 29, a nurse at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, after casting her vote at the St. Paul RiverCentre. The voting, for 12,000 members of the Minnesota Nurses Association, is scheduled to continue until 10 p.m. Wednesday.

Mary Kay Speggen, another nurse at Abbott, said she thinks most of her coworkers feel a one-day walkout is a "viable option."

"None of us wants to, or relishes the idea of going on strike," she said. "My personal feeling is that we just need to go back to the bargaining table."

Nurses union officials announced earlier this week that they were switching their strategy away from an open-ended strike to a one-day action to pressure hospital officials. If members authorize a strike, the union would have to give hospitals 10 day notice.

Several members said a one-day strike would be easier for their fellow nurses to accept, given their concerns about the economy and their patients.

"I think the significance of a one-day strike would be probably just as meaningful as a prolonged strike, even though I think a lot of us were willing to do it," said Peter Johnson, an emergency room nurse at the Riverside campus of the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview.

Technically, the nurses are voting on whether to accept new contract proposals from the hospitals. Union officials say the proposals are filled with concessions and would endanger patient care by stretching nurses too thin.

The hospitals, however, say they need more flexibility to assign nurses where they're most needed, and to control costs by cutting pension contributions and other benefits. The hospitals have offered wage increases of 0, 1 and 2 percent over three years; while the nurses have asked for 3 percent annual raises.

Union officials insist that money isn't the issue.

"That's not going to be the issue that holds it up," said John Nemo, a union spokesman. "It's all about the staffing ratios and patient care."

By 9 a.m. Wednesday, three hours after the polls opened, nearly 2,000 nurses had shown up to cast their ballots, many wearing their nursing uniforms or red-and-white union t-shirts. "The turnout's been fabulous," said James Bialke, the union's executive director. The only criticism he's heard about the proposed one-day walkout, he said, "is a lot of people who think it should be longer."

At least one veteran nurse, who declined to give her name, called it "a huge gamble." At the same time, she said, "if it can get a fair contract passed, it definitely would be worth it."

The results are expected to be released shortly after voting closes at 10 p.m.

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