Business & Tech

This nurses’ strike plan is a novel one

Thousands of nurses walk around Abbott Northwestern hospital on the first day of a strike Sunday, June 19, 2016, in Minneapolis, Minn. About 4,800 nurses at five Minneapolis-area hospitals, all operated by Allina Health, began a weeklong strike Sunday over a contract impasse. (Jerry Holt /Star Tribune via AP)
AJerry Holt/Star Tribune via Associated Press
About 4,800 nurses at five Minneapolis-area hospitals, all operated by Allina Health, began a strike Sunday.

More than 4,800 nurses walked off the job at a major Minneapolis hospital system last weekend. On Thursday, some 1,300 nurses went on strike in Los Angeles. And next week, 3,300 nurses may set up picket lines at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Coincidence? Not exactly.

The nurses in each state are affiliated with the same labor union, National Nurses United. Union officials said Thursday that they coordinated the job actions — the first time the union has launched simultaneous strikes in multiple states — to make it harder for the hospitals to find enough fill-in workers.

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“There’s only so many they can hire,” said Jean Ross, copresident of National Nurses United, which represents 185,000 nurses nationally. “It does help if we have a large group of nurses out at the same time. We certainly thought of that.”

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The nurses’ work can be grueling, with long hours and few breaks, but they are typically well paid, and the number of jobs nationally is rising. Many unionized nurses at hospitals such as the Brigham earn over $100,000.

But union officials say they are fighting the “corporatization” of the health care industry, which they assert is chipping away at pay and benefits and sometimes forcing nurses to work in understaffed units and unsafe conditions. Their concerns come as hospitals across the country face increasing pressure to be more efficient and contain costs, including wages and benefits.

In all three states where the national nurses union is staging walkouts, it is targeting dominant health care providers in major cities: Allina Health of Minneapolis, Kaiser Permanente in California, and a flagship teaching hospital of Partners HealthCare in Massachusetts.

The disputes are similar. A disagreement over bargaining practices and health insurance benefits contributed to the walkout at five Allina Health hospitals in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The seven-day strike began Sunday.

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Nurses began a four-day strike on Thursday at Los Angeles Medical Center, part of the Kaiser Permanente system, after clashing with hospital officials on pay and staffing levels.

And in Boston, the Massachusetts Nurses Association, an affiliate of National Nurses United, is planning a one-day walkout at the Brigham because of concerns about wages, health benefits, and staffing. The hospital plans to lock out the union nurses for four more days, saying the step is necessary after the one-day strike to ensure continuity of care.

“Limited-time strikes, like the one-day strike Brigham nurses voted for, are a way for nurses to use their unity to apply pressure on their employer to reach a fair contract without leaving the nurses vulnerable for a long period of no work or income,” said Joe Markman, a spokesman for the Massachusetts union.

Negotiators from the Brigham and the union plan to meet Friday in a last-ditch attempt to compromise. If they don’t reach a deal, the strike is set to begin at 7 a.m. Monday.

Brigham and Women’s, one of the busiest teaching hospitals in the state, says it will operate at 60 percent of normal capacity in the event of a walkout. It has already started canceling appointments and transferring patients.

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Hospitals facing labor strikes often contract with staffing agencies to find temporary replacement nurses who can fill in while the regular workforce is on the picket line.

Markman said that by staging concurrent strikes across the country, even if they don’t stop hospitals from hiring temp workers, unions can force hospitals to spend more than planned on hiring temps. When demand for temp workers is high, the costs of hiring them can rise.

“We’re obviously not interested in replacement mercenary nurses taking the place of well-trained Brigham nurses,” he said. “From a union perspective, we would like the hospital to be under pressure to reach a fair settlement.”

Hospital officials slammed the union’s strategy.

“If it is true that National Nurses United, with whom the MNA is affiliated, seeks to coordinate strikes around the country to make it difficult for hospitals to find replacements, it is appalling,” Brigham spokeswoman Erin McDonough said. “Nurses are viewed historically as America’s most trusted profession. This strategy to deprive patients of necessary care is not only unethical, it is an indefensible breach of that trust.”

Brigham and Women’s says it has offered nurses a generous package.

Even though a nursing strike would come on the heels of two other walkouts, Brigham officials said they have secured 688 of the 700 temporary nurses they need next week. Those temp nurses would work alongside 140 nonunion nurses, plus extra doctors and other patient care workers.

The temps, recruited by the Colorado staffing agency US Nursing, have started arriving in Boston to undergo training. They will be paid up to $75 a hour. The most senior Brigham nurses make about $69 an hour. Hospital officials said the temps will be fully qualified.

Allina Health hired 1,400 temporary nurses to work during the weeklong nurses’ strike there. The Minnesota Nurses Association said many of the temps are not properly trained, but Allina spokesman David Kanihan said they are performing well and that the health system is operating “at pretty much full capacity.”

Los Angeles Medical Center hired more than 500 temporary workers during the strike there, scheduled to end Monday.

Nursing strikes are rare, and it’s even rarer for several strikes to happen at once.

“I’ve been studying job actions since the 1980s, and this is highly unusual,” said Judith Shindul-Rothschild, associate professor at Boston College’s nursing school, and a former president of the Massachusetts nurses union. “This a very disturbing trend. Negotiations between hospital management and nurses on the front lines have become fractured.”

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey
@globe.com
.