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Nurses ask Essentia CEO to respect union organization at new facilities

Nurses, elected officials and labor leaders held a news conference Wednesday to voice concerns employees have about the lack of support for worker attempts to organize.

Chris Rubesch speaks at a union event for nursing
Essentia registered nurse Chris Rubesch, who is first vice president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, speaks at a news conference Wednesday regarding unionization of nurses at new Essentia facilities. The conference was held at the Duluth Labor Temple.
Laura Butterbrodt / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — Nurses from the Twin Ports area held a news conference Wednesday morning to voice their concerns about the rights of nurses at Essentia Health facilities, especially the Essentia Health Surgery Center-Miller Mall, which is anticipated to open in July.

Chris Rubesch, a registered nurse at Essentia and the first vice president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, said Essentia has told MNA it does not intend for the surgery center or the new Cloquet clinic to be union facilities.

"When we pressed them and asked for them simply to be publicly neutral, so allowing a free and fair election amongst the members, they have said that's not something that they want to discuss at this time," he said.

The Essentia Health Surgery Center-Miller Hill will have 41,000 square feet to conduct outpatient surgeries.

Rubesch said he hopes the public event at the Duluth Labor Temple will put pressure on Essentia Chief Executive Officer David Herman to respect the employees' right to organize. The news conference was attended by about 50 nurses, labor leaders, public officials and candidates.

The Minnesota Nurses Association sent an email to Herman on Wednesday morning requesting a meeting to negotiate an agreement, and detailed the terms they would include in the agreement. Terms include a commitment to respect nurses' rights, an election process, and communication to nurses about the process of their option to join a union without coercion, intimidation, promises or threats during the decision-making process.

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The Duluth hospitals Essentia Health-St. Mary's and St. Luke's are both unionized, and the new St. Mary's hospital in Essentia's Vision Northland construction project has an agreement to stay unionized when staff move to the new facility. Beth McCuskey, president of the Duluth Central Labor Body, said Essentia used union trade workers to build the surgical center. Essentia has been vocal about its pride in using skilled labor for its numerous construction projects in the Northland.

"Why should patient care inside the building be held to a lower standard than the work that went into its construction?" McCuskey said.

Rubesch said current union members who work in surgical departments have no interest is going to the new facility in the Miller Hill Mall if it is not unionized because they would not receive the same benefits or additional protections and advocacy.

In an email, Essentia Health responded to questions about the health care system's stance on unionization with the following statement:

"Essentia Health is one of the largest employers of union-represented workers in the region. We are proud of our long-time working relationships with unions where our employees have voted for union representation. Under federal law, a decision regarding union representation would be something for employees to decide and we would respect that choice. We remain committed to full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations."

In 2020, Essentia entered a partnership with Mercy Hospital in Moose Lake, which had a union contract prior to the buyout. Since Essentia took over, Tristin Eastvold, a registered nurse in Moose Lake, has been active in the Minnesota Nurses Association, speaking about how the quality of care at the hospital and attached clinic has gone downhill since Essentia took over. The union has been in negotiations with Essentia for nearly two years because Essentia did not honor the previous union contracts for the hospital. The two entities have yet to come to a decision, and the new clinic is non-union.

Nurse Tristin Eastvold speaks at a union news conference
Registered nurse Tristin Eastvold of Moose Lake speaks Wednesday at a Duluth Labor Temple news conference calling on Essentia executives to support its nurses' right to unionize.
Laura Butterbrodt / Duluth News Tribune

"Essentia Health is anti-union," Eastvold said. "Anything new that they build, they want non-union. Anything that they buy, they bust up the contract. Unions hold hospital systems accountable for how they treat their staff and, most importantly, how they treat their patients."

Health care workers at Essentia and Catholic Health Initiatives have signed the petition to express their concern about potential changes in access to care when Essentia acquires the facilities.

MNA President Mary Turner said nurses have sacrificed and suffered throughout the two years of the coronavirus pandemic because of their dedication to taking care of patients. She said health care staff have endured, despite health care systems including Essentia not providing adequate staffing levels, personal protective equipment or breaks during long shifts. She then noted that Herman received a $1 million raise from fiscal year 2019 to 2020, which is the latest available record.

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"He brought home $2.4 million in 2020, and yet, we're fighting for bonus pay?" Turner said. "(Herman's) pay won't be any less. It'll be more, because the quality of care will be better and people will wholeheartedly go to a place that is cared for by union staff."

According to the most recent public records, Essentia brought in more than $219 million in revenues in the 2020 fiscal year, which ended in June 2020. This is nearly $25 million more than the Duluth-based health care system's 2019 revenues.

"Minnesota looks to Duluth when we want an example of what union is, and how union looks out for the safety of their patients and customers, because that's a priority of all unions," Turner said. "The least they (Essentia) can do is to be neutral when we try to unionize, when we want to unionize, when we insist that we unionize the workers in all our surgery center clinics. Is that so much to ask in a union town called Duluth?"

READ MORE BY LAURA BUTTERBRODT
The charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board were dropped after the Minnesota Nurses Association agreed to its new contracts with hospitals.

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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