MN Democrats Bend to Hospital’s Union Busting and Betray the Minnesota Nurses Union
As the Minnesota Legislative session was winding down for the year, the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (what the Democrats are called in Minnesota) betrayed the Minnesota Nurses Association union (MNA) by completely gutting a bill that would have required hospitals to staff at a higher nurse-to-patient ratio.
It looked like the union nurses were on the verge of a massive victory. The bill, known as the Keeping Nurses at the Bedside Act, was championed by the MNA as it addressed one of their primary demands for over a decade, commonly known as “safe staffing.” Well-staffed hospitals protect the safety of the nurses against overwork and fatigue, and therefore provide higher quality patient care.
However, after premature celebrations, MNA president and intensive care nurse Mary Turn was forced to say, “The bill is dead.” A Democratic majority in the House and Senate alongside Democratic Governor Tim Walz killed the safe staffing bill that would have fundamentally changed the lives of thousands of healthcare workers across the state.
Why Won’t the Democrats Fight for Workers?
The bill was so drastically stripped of any staffing protections that it was renamed the Nurse and Patient Safety Act. All that remained when it reached the Governor was, “focus on preventing violence against nurses and studying the reasons why they burn out and leave the profession.” This is outrageous; any worker knows that such soft language from the bosses means nothing.
The MNA has been sounding the alarm on hospital conditions for nurses for many years even before the pandemic. Short staffing leads to increased burden on the remaining nurses who will then be pushed to the brink, making conditions unsafe for patients and the nurses’ health. The hospitals would rather rely on non-union nurses instead of hiring more MNA nurses. During the three-day MNA strike in September of 2022, Fairview Health spent $25 million on flying in replacement (scab) nurses. Allina Health spent $23 million, and Children’s Minnesota spent $7 million. It’s union busting, plain and simple.
Despite Minnesota being presented as a progressive haven after the Democrats swept statewide elections and won majorities in both legislative chambers, the Democrats bent to the pressure of the hospital bosses at the Mayo Clinic and carried out their union busting. The Mayo Clinic is one of the most prestigious and profitable hospitals in the country. It is based in Rochester, MN which it already runs like a company town. After the Mayo Clinic threatened to relocate its billion-dollar hospital expansion to another state, if the MNA demands for increased nurse staffing requirements made it into law, the Democrats and Governor Tim Walz agreed to exempt all of Mayo’s hospitals in Minnesota from the potential law’s staffing requirements. That exemption triggered discontent among other hospital bosses and legislatures who didn’t like that Mayo was getting special treatment. Instead of fighting to include Mayo in the staffing requirements, the Democrats completely dropped the staffing requirements for all Minnesota hospitals. In the face of this obvious betrayal, Democrat Erin Murphy, a former nurse, said, “that carveout [for Mayo] is gone” – but so was the safe staffing bill! That’s like applauding your landlord for ripping out your broken dishwasher when you asked him to fix it. And this is from the biggest “nurses champion” that the Democrats have.
This refusal to standup to big business is not a one-off anomaly for Minnesota Democrats, despite progressive legislation passing this session. Days after Governor Walz betrayed the nurses, he vetoed a bill that would have increased pay for rideshare drivers after Uber threatened to stop its operations in the state if the legislation passed. This is clear horsetrading. Throwing one section of workers under the bus while simultaneously passing legislation – like driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants– that are less directly threatening to the bosses’ profits is a divide-and-rule maneuver to prevent sharp criticism from the left against the Walz administration for being nakedly on the side of corporate profits.
Healthcare is Big Business
Hospitals have fiercely opposed nurse staffing regulation in all its forms whenever it comes up anywhere in the country, and the bill in Minnesota was already a big compromise. Instead of a better fixed nurse-to-patient staffing ratio for Minnesota hospitals, the latest version dropped this provision and instead would have used binding arbitration to set staffing levels only when a committee of nurses and hospital managers couldn’t reach a consensus on what that staffing would be. Even this moderate loss of control to the nurses was too much for the hospital bosses. The bosses know that giving workers any democratic decision making, or any control over their workplace, is a threat to their dictatorship over their workers. But it is nurses, not hospital administrators, who are actually caring for patients at their bedsides and know what is needed for high-quality, well-run hospitals.
The Democrats in Minnesota are celebrating after this legislative session, claiming that it was “transformational” for “the everyday, average, hardworking Minnesotans.” This session did pass many progressive measures including gun control, paid parental leave, cleaner energy, and abortion rights. None of these things should be dismissed, especially as the right to abortion is under extreme attack from the right wing after the repeal of Roe v. Wade. However, this clear capitulation to the Mayo bosses, and the betrayal of the nurses, shows that Democrats of all stripes will melt under the pressure of a corporation, even at its very first threat.
Labor Cannot Rely on the Democratic Party
The Democrats rolling over for Mayo and the hospitals at the expense of over 15,000 Minnesota nurses is just another example that working people and unions can’t trust the Democratic Party to defend our interests. Mayo lobbyists only had to send one email to Governor Walz and he killed the bill on their behalf. It doesn’t have to be this way.
The MNA is broadly seen as one of the most powerful unions in the Twin Cities. The Minneapolis paper of record – StarTribune – compares them to the UAW in Detroit. Just last summer, MNA went out on one of the biggest nurses’ strikes in US history. The strike included some 15,000 nurses across 15 Minnesota hospitals, and they threatened to do it again in December. The nurses received moderate wage gains, 18% over three years. They started negotiations demanding 30%. Demands that they didn’t win in the contract – like safe staffing – were pushed off to the legislature to be won there instead. This MNA defeat over safe staffing is a huge blow to not just nurses and patients but to the fighting prospects of every union in Minnesota.
A big part of MNA’s strategy is a legislative approach that relies on the DFL. The MNA contributed $414,723 to political campaigns last year. They made 113 endorsements, and 95 of those campaigns won their elections (all but one endorsement was for a Democrat). The MNA is opposed to a merger between a Minnesota hospital and a South Dakota hospital that employs non-union nurses that would throw existing collective bargaining agreements into question. Despite MNA’s opposition, MNA-endorsed Governor Walz supports the merger. And every one of the DFL politicians that showed up to MNA picket lines last year betrayed the MNA by supporting Mayo’s union busting.
Unions should stop supporting the Democrats by making the kinds of donations and endorsements the MNA made just to have those same Democrats take the side of corporations like Mayo as soon as they whine about lost profits. This betrayal could be the last, but only if the MNA stops donating to the Democrats and instead campaigns for a new independent workers’ party in Minnesota. The MNA president has real authority, not just in the labor movement, but in the state. If she raised the demand for a new workers’ party, rank-and-file union members across the state and country would welcome her call and join the struggle by convincing more unions and working people to build that new party. Democrats like Governor Walz tried to balance his support between MNA and Mayo, but eventually, he had to choose a side, and he chose to side with the bosses over nurses. Not one more betrayal! Unions need a party of our own that will side with working people, not corporations.