St. Luke’s nurses approved a new contract they won after coming to a one-day, wage-only focused negotiations showing they were ready to bargain together after three years of strong member engagement. The strength of the nurses was apparent even at breakfast.
A hearty “Good morning!” was echoed more than 150 times as Duluth nurses turned out in force in the early morning to welcome St. Luke’s Hospital negotiators to the bargaining table. They saw nurses from St. Luke’s and from competitor Essentia St. Mary’s as well as their friends, families, fellow union members, and even kids in an impressive display of red filling the hotel hallways. The big turnout to push for a good contract, however, started well before the day of negotiations and even back to the first day after the last contract was signed in 2010.
Three years ago, St. Luke’s nurses were able to get a Letter of Understanding that staffing issues would be addressed through a thorough review of grids to address shortages. Nurses continued to worry that their patients were not receiving the best quality to care due to short staffing.
“We did get contract language in our last contract about staffing and ratios, but the hospital has been very slow to implement that,” said Danielle Rodgers, RN at St. Luke’s.
That got nurses talking and organizing. Together they initiated a petition informing management that staffing levels were still putting patients at risk. The petition was signed by 330 RNs – more than 75 percent of the unit.
Nurses then began a “Q” campaign. Duluth nurses passed out buttons to their colleagues floor by floor with the medical shorthand for “every” next to staffing to indicate every shift needs to be properly staffed. Management noticed, but so did patients who didn’t get the lingo.
“A lot of people say ‘that’s excellent,” or “I don’t see why you wouldn’t have standards already.’” said Anna Rathbun, RN in St. Luke’s ICU, “We started the button initiative several months ago, and it stirred up unon talk before negotiations were even being thought of, and I think the fact that so many nurses are wearing the buttons showed solidarity in the hospital.”
Management responded by hiring 20 FTEs, but the message was as clear as the Q on the button-that nurses were still standing together after the 2010 contract was negotiated.
When St. Luke’s management approached nurses with a wages-only negotiations proposal, members in each department went nurse-to-nurse to explain the ramifications.
“We asked our members to vote on focused vs. traditional negotiations,” Rathbun said, “just getting the feel for what nurses felt about it and spreading the word about what’s happening-taking their temperature.”
The strong turnout for that vote indicated that yes, nurses would be willing to negotiate wages only. The established network that was set up to address staffing was now able to turn its efforts to bring out nurses for St. Luke’s wages.
After the “Good morning” event, St. Luke’s post-op nurse, Erin Behling, read a statement that whatever their offer, it will be considered representative of what hospitals think of nurses and the work they do. The crowd of 150 applauded Behling then filed out to let the bargaining teams go to work.
“I think it set a tone that we were not alone as a negotiating team. We were representing a much larger group that was interested and concerned about what was going on at the table,” said Kate Donovan, RN, a nurse in St. Luke’s Med/Surg unit and a three-year veteran of negotiations.
Because they kept up the pressure, nurses received 4.5 percent over three years, and the offer came less than four hours after negotiations began. That deal was ratified a week later by a majority of nurses at St. Luke’s.
“The solidarity and support of all of the unions at negotiations was absolutely crucial to get the settlement that we reached. The sea of red was absolutely empowering to those of us at the bargaining table and gave us confidence that we would get the agreement we needed to pass,” said bargaining team member Cindy Prout, RN.
Duluth nurses plan to show up united again when Essentia St. Mary’s enters negotiations later this year.
“Duluth’s a total unit. We’re all MNA. We’re going to fight for patients. We’re all strong. We’re all fighters,” said Behling.