Ilhan Omar: Minnesota Nurses Are Ready to Strike. I Stand With Them.

Rep. Ilhan Omar in Jacobin: hospital CEOs are getting paid millions, but Twin Cities nurses don’t have the proper resources to care for their patients. It’s obvious why I’m on their side — you should be, too.

Ilhan Omar: “We will continue to support these nurses — including through a strike, if they deem it necessary.” (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Every single one of us relies on the labor of our nurses — which means that when those nurses are chronically understaffed, underpaid, and overworked, it affects all of us.

Last week, an overwhelming majority of Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) members in the Twin Cities and Twin Ports voted in favor of authorizing a strike in their monthslong fight for fair contracts to hold health care executives accountable. This will be the largest nursing strike in our country’s history if hospital executives fail to act.

Earlier this week, I joined nurses at Hennepin County Medical Center for an informational picket to call for fair contracts that address their concerns of staff safety, shortages, and retention. It is unconscionable that hospital CEOs have refused to address these concerns.

When nurses are not given the resources and support they need, patient care suffers. Instead, they have fostered a system that puts profits over the health and safety of both nurses and patients.

Our nurses in the Twin Cities and Twin Ports have been working for months without contracts while many hospital CEOs continue to take significant raises on multimillion-dollar salaries. While the president and CEO of Fairview Health, James Hereford, made over $2.6 million in 2020, the average annual increase for nurses in Minnesota was just 4 percent. Hospital CEOs have refused to negotiate with nurses over clear failings in our health care system.

Nurses are calling for “hospital executives to work with us to address the crisis of nurse short-staffing, retention, and patient care in our hospitals,” as Mary C. Turner, RN at North Memorial Hospital in the Twin Cities and MNA president, recently stated:

Nurses want to be at the bedside, caring for our patients. That is why nurses are fighting at the bargaining table, and on the sidewalk if necessary: to put Patients Before Profits, keep nurses at the bedside, and to provide the quality care patients deserve.

And Chris Rubesch, RN at Essentia Health Duluth and MNA first vice president, has made clear that “nurses have one priority in our hospitals: to take care of our patients. We are determined to fight for fair contracts so nurses can stay at the bedside to provide the quality care our patients deserve.”

They deserve everything they are calling for. Meeting nurses’ demands isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s better for all of our health.

Last year, the Minnesota Department of Health found incidents of patient harm increased in hospitals and surgical facilities in 2021. Nurses are seeing more patients, resources are being taken away, and their patients are sicker and need more care. This is not what they signed up for when they attended nursing school. They should not have to accept this reality.

As patients, we feel the effects of these corporate health care policies every time we seek care. Insurance companies deny coverage, even as they bring in record profits. Hospitals treat patients in the hallways, even as their executives continue to close down hospitals throughout the state. And we get stuck with massive medical bills and debt, even as CEOs continue to make millions.

As Chelsea Schafter, RN at M Health Fairview, recently put it:

If these executives aren’t getting paid to solve the crushing conditions for workers and patients in our hospitals, what are they paid millions of dollars to do? It is past time for hospital CEOs to step up and to be held accountable to fix the problems they created.

If we fail to improve work conditions, more nurses will leave their jobs while we continue to face unprecedented health challenges. Over 50 percent of nurses nationwide say they are considering leaving their jobs in the next year because of “unsafe staffing” levels. Two months ago, the Minnesota Nurses Association found 80 percent of nurses surveyed who left the bedside “would not return to work in hospitals unless conditions improved.”

We don’t have a shortage of nurses; we have a shortage of dignified workplaces in our health care system. Nurses are not equipped with the resources they need or deserve to do their jobs.

This pandemic has tested our frontline health care workers in unimaginable ways. They endured horrific working conditions while witnessing the deaths of their patients and colleagues. In June 2020, I lost my father to coronavirus complications. I know firsthand the value our nurses bring to patients like him every day. In one of the darkest moments of my life, nurses went above and beyond to provide the best care possible and reassured me that there would be brighter days ahead. The value they bring extends far beyond the medical care they provide.

All throughout the pandemic, our nurses were told they were heroes. Now we need to treat them that way. I have always said that those closest to the problem should be closest to the solution. These negotiations are no different.

It’s time for hospital executives and CEOs to do the right thing, listen to their employees, and be better employers. We will continue to support these nurses — including through a strike, if they deem it necessary — until they get the fair contracts they deserve.