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Bismarck nurses union lands 'historic' labor contract

The nurses at CHI St. Alexius Health are the only unionized nursing staff in North Dakota, and the contract represents a significant breakthrough for labor groups in the state.

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Picketers marched for hours outside CHI St. Alexius in Bismarck to protest short staffing in their ongoing contract negotiations. Adam Willis / The Forum
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BISMARCK — North Dakota's only nurses union scored a landmark contract last week, a major breakthrough for labor rights in a union-dry state.

After more than 30 hours of negotiations early last week, the nurses of Bismarck's CHI St. Alexius Health came to an agreement with their hospital's corporate ownership. More than twenty bargaining sessions over the last year culminated in a 17-hour marathon session, conducted entirely over Zoom, and a settlement after 3 a.m. last Wednesday, Aug. 26.

"This is a historic first contract," said Lauren Buol, a St. Alexius nurse who served on the union's negotiating team. "It goes farther than a lot of mature contracts, and we are very, very proud of a lot of the work that the nurses did to push the hospital to agree to a lot of really good language."

The new agreement is still tentative, but Buol emphasized its historic provisions and the union, represented by the Minnesota Nurses Association, is recommending nurses vote to ratify the contract.

"We are happy to announce that a tentative agreement has been reached with the Minnesota Nurses Association," wrote Chelsea Kralicek, a spokesperson for CHI, in a statement. "We appreciate working with our nurses to continue to provide top quality, safe care to our community."

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Among the major victories included in the 56 article contract are provisions to ensure sick leave, a new wage-scale, assurances of fair staffing in the hospital's emergency department, as well as the right to refuse an unsafe assignment.

Nurses have said poor working conditions at St. Alexius contributed to a high turnover in recent years, resulting in a hospital with few veteran nurses on staff.

Earlier this summer, St. Alexius nurses picketed outside their hospital in a public display that Buol said was helpful in pushing their terms through. The success of their negotiations was the result of a sustained effort by union nurses over the course of the last year, she added.

Labor unions are few and far between in North Dakota, and CHI St. Alexius has the only unionized nursing staff in the state. When St. Alexius nurses voted to form a union last year, they looked out of state for backing, finding representation under MNA.

But the new St. Alexius contract represents a significant breakthrough for labor groups in North Dakota, securing many provisions that would be considered major wins even in more union-friendly states.

"It's a huge thing for nurses at St. A's, but it's a huge thing for Bismarck in general," Buol said. "This is really going to make huge changes in health care, inpatient care, and it's very, very exciting to see the tides of change start taking over Bismarck."

The CHI St. Alexius union comprises more than three hundred nurses, and members are expected to vote on the new contract sometime in the week of Sept. 7, according to a statement released by MNA.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.

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