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Thousands of nurses in Minnesota go on strike over better working conditions

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Approximately 15,000 nurses in Minnesota are now on the second day of a three-day strike. The Minnesota Nurses Association argues their nurses are overworked, hospitals are understaffed and patients are overcharged for care. And the affected hospitals are hiring temporary nurses from across the country in order to backfill.

Let's bring in Chris Rubesch, who is first vice president of the Minnesota Nurses Association. Chris, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CHRIS RUBESCH: Thanks so much for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So your president, Mary Turner, says that this is not about wages exactly. What is this strike about?

RUBESCH: Our first and foremost priority is making sure that nurses have a voice in the staffing and scheduling process, in the care that we deliver and in how we are delivering our care at the bedside. And that means that we need a voice in the staffing and scheduling process. We need the protections to use our clinical judgment when delivering patient care and, if needed, when refusing assignments that are unsafe for the safety of our other patients on the floor. And that's really our focus in these negotiations.

SUMMERS: Your group has decided to limit the strike to just three days. Can you tell us a little bit about why that is?

RUBESCH: Yeah. So for nurses and for, like, many other professions in the human service industry, it can be really gut-wrenching for us to make a decision to walk off the job, to leave the people we serve. That's why we're nurses. That's why we're in the profession that we're in. But, you know, we just have realized that the conditions are such that we can't be silent. We can't not respond to this. And so we made the really difficult decision to take this strike. And we hope that three days is enough, and we're going to come back to the table after these three days and hopefully resume constructive dialogue with management.

SUMMERS: Spokespeople for the affected hospital systems have blamed this strike on nurses, and they say that the MNA has refused attempts at neutral mediation. How do you respond to that?

RUBESCH: You know, I think we're not refusing mediation outright. We're refusing mediation right now. And part of that is because mediators are there to help us reach a deal, to help the parties, you know, find common ground, and we haven't seen a hospital willing to find any ground at all, let alone common ground. My own facility, we have rewritten our staffing proposals from scratch three times, and only on Saturday night at the 11th hour did the hospital respond to our staffing proposal for the first time. So I don't think a mediator would have really pushed them to find common ground when they weren't wanting to look at the ground at all.

SUMMERS: And just to make sure I understand, when you say your staffing proposal, is that, like, how many nurses are working at any given time or for what length of shifts or what does that look like?

RUBESCH: We understand the nursing shortage, the acute health care worker shortage. I mean, it's a complex problem. And so we proposed a solution that included staffing and scheduling language, language to protect nurses from discipline for refusing assignments that they deemed were unsafe, as well as other things.

SUMMERS: Obviously, the pandemic has stretched many health care workers incredibly thin, but nurses that we've talked to over the last two years, they often say that chronic understaffing, it predates the pandemic. Is that your experience in the state of Minnesota?

RUBESCH: Absolutely. I've been a nurse for seven years now. I know and work with many nurses who have been in the field for decades longer than that. This pandemic certainly shone a bright spotlight on the crisis of understaffing and worker shortages in the health care industry. But this problem has been festering for decades. And we realize that we need to take action now because if we don't address this problem now, the system, I'm afraid, is just going to buckle until it breaks.

SUMMERS: And Chris, what would you like patients to understand about this strike?

RUBESCH: We really want patients to know that we are keeping their care at the center of our negotiations. That's why we're doing what we're doing. We don't want to be on the streets. We want to be at the bedside caring for patients. But we simply can't be silent anymore because the care that we deliver them is just too important to us.

SUMMERS: That's Chris Rubesch, first vice president of the Minnesota Nurses Association. Thank you so much.

RUBESCH: Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: And we've reached out to affected hospitals in Minnesota for comment, but we haven't yet heard back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.