Even during a severe national nursing shortage, nine Minnesota hospitals turned down 20 nurses for jobs who were on strike in June 2001 from Fairview Health Services, Minneapolis.
The nurses said they were denied employment solely because they were strikers, while the hospitals said they simply didn't want to invest training time in nurses who weren't committed to their hospitals for the long term. A federal administrative law judge upheld a ruling in the nurses' favor last week.
The defendants included hospitals owned by Allina Hospitals and Clinics, Minneapolis, and HealthEast Care System, St. Paul, among others. All claims against Fairview were dropped as part of the settlement of the 23-day strike in June 2001, said Phillip Finkelstein, a lawyer for the Minnesota Nurses Association. The organization represented the nurses before the National Labor Relations Board, which found the hospitals had engaged in an unfair labor practice. The board's lawyers then defended the ruling in front of the administrative law judge.
Although the right to strike isn't absolute, Judge William Pannier wrote, "there simply is no room under the (National Labor Relations) Act for allowing statutory employers to discriminate against employees for no reason other than that those employees are on strike." Pannier ordered the hospitals to give the nurses full pay, with interest, for the time they were unfairly excluded from employment, and any other benefits they were denied because of unfair labor practices; the damages will be set in a separate phase of the litigation, Finkelstein said.
"The right to strike is meaningless if other employers are free to discriminate against striking nurses," Finkelstein said.
The Minnesota Hospital and Healthcare Partnership, which represents 140 hospitals in Minnesota, said the hospitals in the case are more concerned with the principle of their right to seek committed, full-time employees than with the back pay damages, which the partnership expects will be small.
"Full-time workers are such an imperative," said Dave Feinwachs, the partnership's general counsel. "Can you be forced to hire workers who not only aren't going to be full-time, but aren't going to be there very long at all? That's a very serious question." All of the nurses were given the opportunity to commit to full-time work for the long haul, but they all turned it down, he said.