Remembering the 1984 nurses strike

As Minnesota nurses vote today to settle their contract dispute and avoid a strike with Twin Cities hospitals, veterans among them can look back to 1984, when they walked off the job for 38 days.

Then, as now, the issues were not primarily monetary. If they had been, a labor-management stalemate might have been avoided. Instead, the 1984 strike revolved around a contentious dispute over working conditions and job security. For their part, the nurses maintained that they were being forced into layoffs and part-time work without adequate protection for their seniority. In response, the hospitals claimed that they needed the flexibility to manage work schedules in order to respond to fluctuating patient levels.

The stalemate arose at a time when hospitals were experiencing a sharp drop in occupancy. Earlier in the year, a study by the Metropolitan Health Planning Board showed that about 40 percent of the more than 10,000 acute-care beds in the Twin Cities area, on average, had been empty in 1983.

In the days leading up to the job action, Ed Smith, a federal mediator, had attempted to bridge the gap between the nurses and the hospitals, but his mediation effort failed. At 2 p.m. on May 31, Smith announced that the talks between the two sides had broken down. Earlier in May, in accord with federal labor law, the Minnesota Nurses Association had issued intent to strike when their existing contract expired at the end of the month

6,000 walked off the job
At 6:30 a.m. on June 1, the strike began when 6,000 nurses at 15 area hospitals walked off the job. It affected about half the hospital beds in the Twin Cities and was the largest job action of its kind in the country until that point.

The struck hospitals responded by issuing layoff notices to 8,000 non-nursing employees and restricting admissions to all but the most critically ill patients. In St. Paul and East Metro, where only three hospitals were strike targets, the job action had less impact than it did in Minneapolis and West Metro, where 11 hospitals — including Fairview, Abbott Northwestern and Methodist — were caught up in the strike.

The two county-run hospitals, Hennepin County Medical Center and St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center (now Regions Hospital), were not included in the job action and both facilities saw their patient loads increase during the first few days in June. That increase was only modest at St. Paul-Ramsey but it was much more substantial at Hennepin County, where the patient census surged by 30 percent over a two-day period, even though the hospital eliminated virtually all non-critical admissions.
Nurses who walked the picket lines expressed some regrets about their actions, but maintained that their livelihoods and their professional status were at stake. “Nurses are compassionate people, but we have to take of ourselves. We have to draw the line someplace,” said Kelly Ruoho, as she marched in front of St. John’s Hospital.

Hospitals took out full-page ads
As the strike wore on with no settlement in sight, the hospitals took out full-page ads in the local papers in an effort to generate public support for their position. “How Much Job Security is Realistic?” the ads asked rhetorically. In a response to their own question, the hospitals maintained that job protection provisions had been included in the nurses’ contracts since 1972 but “recent fundamental changes in the health care industry have resulted in fewer patients and shorter hospital stays. Layoffs are an outcome of these changes and a necessary reality.”

With the strike taking a toll on both sides, the hospitals and the nurses resumed talks on June 26 and kept them going for the next five days. Then, at 3 a.m. on July 1, after a marathon 18-hour negotiating session, a tentative agreement was reached. That agreement was ratified by the nurses on July 9, signaling an end to the strike. 

Under a new three-year contract, layoffs would need to begin at the bottom of the seniority list and work their way up toward the top of the list. Salaries, never a major item of contention, were adjusted upward, but not to the level initially proposed by the union’s negotiators. The nurses had initially asked for a 6 percent raise over two years but settled for a 4 percent increase in each the first two years, with salary levels for the third year still open to negotiation.

With a settlement in hand, each side claimed that the agreement was a “win” for them.

“We feel that the contract, as it ultimately turned out, is one that achieves the goals that we set out at the beginning of the negotiations,” said Karen Patek, the nurses; chief negotiator. “We hope the hospitals feel it is something they can live with because we all have to work together now.” Michael Phillips, the hospital association’s representative, noted that his members “were obviously pleased” with the agreement. “The fact that we have a settlement shows that they believe the issues of concern to them have been addressed,” Phillips said.

Twenty-six years after that settlement was reached, the nurses and hospitals were, once again, at loggerheads over staffing levels and management prerogatives. Today’s vote by nurses may settle the most recent dispute.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 07/06/2010 - 03:29 pm.

    Good article. Would you be willing to comment on the fact(s) that many school districts voted for wage increases while funding and class sizes go in opposite directions? That the nurses had to strike and threaten to hold out longer just to stay at an even keel. I am not necessarily pro or con but it is interesting to see the difference here between private ownership and public ownership when both are essentially public goods.

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