News & Events

Nurses’ contract fight spills onto Web

Hospitals, union take campaigns online amid Twin Cities strike talk

By Jeremy Olson

Updated: 04/30/2010 03:06:43 AM CDT

Nurses don’t have to wait for pickets to publicly vent about this spring’s contract negotiations with Twin Cities hospitals. They can just go to their union’s Facebook page and let the opinions fly.

"I’m an RN at HealthEast and (I) think all the hospitals should be ashamed and embarrassed by their proposals!" said Kelly Brown in a Tuesday post to the Minnesota Nurses Association’s page.

"Stand firm MNA nurses!! NO TAKE BACKS!!" encouraged nurse Kendra Larson Wright. "WE HAVE THE POWER AND NUMBERS!!"

With the May 19 deadline nearing for six hospital groups and their 12,000 nurses, both sides have turned to web pages to convey their messages, and the nurses union also has built large social-media networks. The hot topics in the contract dispute include pension benefits, patient-to-nurse staffing ratios and the hospitals’ ability to transfer nurses to open shifts or units.

While traditional tactics are in the works — including union demonstrations May 6 outside Abbott Northwestern Hospital and Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis — leaders on both sides believe these online campaigns could have a new and persuasive effect on public opinion and contract talks.

The nurses union has been particularly aggressive in using Facebook and Twitter to broadcast its stances and to encourage nurses from across the state to support each other. YouTube videos show pro athletes thanking nurses for their work. An online petition seeks to gather public support as well

The great thing (with social media) is that we have a measurable way to gauge public opinion, support and feedback on negotiations," said John Nemo, an MNA spokesman. "And we can also share that input with our members instantaneously."

Representing the majority of metro hospitals, the Allina, Children’s, Fairview, HealthEast, North Memorial and Park Nicollet systems have joined together on a web site — — to offer their stances. The site includes the hospitals’ initial contract offers to their nurses.

While the union’s social media usage has generated interest — including 4,126 Facebook fans and counting — it has also permitted misleading comments about the hospitals and their nurse-staffing levels, said Trish Dougherty, a spokeswoman for the negotiating hospitals. The hospital site is partly designed to calm any public fears generated by statements about the hospitals and their quality of care, she said.

"When you have all that public media out there, you have to come out with the facts if what you’re seeing is not accurate," Dougherty said.

The union’s use of social media will be an interesting case study for future labor negotiations, said John Budd, a labor-relations expert in the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

"Labor negotiators traditionally have tried to control information fairly tightly," he said. "Information is power. But this (social media) is difficult to control. So it could help build solidarity among the nurses but it might go in some ways that the leadership can’t control."

It also expedites the flow of information. Negotiators have emerged from contract talks with instant Facebook posts on any progress. The union’s official reports come later.

Social media may be particularly meaningful in the Twin Cities, because nurses are negotiating with six health systems at once and eager to compare progress with one system versus another.

The hospitals in general are seeking more flexibility to move nurses to shifts or floors where they are needed most. They also seek various cost savings, including a reduction in pension subsidies for nurses who retire early in the future.

The union wants hospitals to staff nursing shifts at 115 percent capacity, arguing it would improve patient safety and health. It would also increase the number of hours available for nurses to work — at a substantial cost to the hospitals.

Wage increases haven’t come up yet. The slow pace of negotiations has both sides contemplating a strike.

"No one wants the nurses to go on strike, but it certainly seems to be heading that way," Dougherty said. "We’re getting prepared."

Naturally, those preparations have already been discussed on Facebook. One nurse posted a recruiting ad from HealthSource Global Staffing, which is seeking 2,000 nurses to fill in at hospitals if there is a strike.

While contract talks in 2004 and 2007 were uneventful, negotiations in 2001 resulted in a three-week strike by 1,350 Fairview nurses. Allina nurses would have struck that year, too, if not for mistakes in the vote tally that were discovered too late to reverse.

In 1984, more than 6,000 nurses from 16 Twin Cities hospitals went on strike for 38 days. It remains the largest nursing strike in U.S. history.

Jeremy Olson can be reached at 651-228-5583.