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Alexandria, Minn. — Jo Radil is a corrections officer at the Douglas County Jail in Alexandria. Radil's job is to book offenders after they're brought in by law enforcement. She also fingerprints people brought into jail, and tests them for drugs and alcohol. Radil loves her job.
"It's dealing with people. It's not the hand-holding stuff like I used to do. The bedside manner is a little different," Radil says.
Radil used to be a licensed practical nurse at the Alexandria Clinic across town. But in 1999, she was one of 22 LPNs fired after going on strike.
They don't work together anymore, but some of the nurses are still friends. Radil gets together once in a while Joyce Iverson, another former clinic nurse.
They went on strike because they feared a new contract would cut their full-time status, costing them benefits. The LPNs say they tried every avenue to avoid the strike. But when a federal mediator said neither side was going to budge, the nurses hit the picket lines. Joyce Iverson says it was one of the toughest decisions she's ever made.
"It was a very long process, and it was not one that we took lightly. It was discussed for a long time. We went right to the final hour, where people were going to doctors saying, 'Please, can't you talk to somebody, can't you stop this?'" Iverson says.
Ten days ahead of time the nurses gave clinic officials a document that said the strike would commence at 8 a.m. on Sept. 10, 1999. The nurses walked out on Sept. 10, but not until noon. That four-hour difference between the notification letter and the actual walkout was given as grounds for firing the nurses.
Their labor leaders said the word "commence" meant the strike didn't have to start exactly at 8 a.m. Clinic officials disagreed, and said the strike was illegal. So they fired the nurses and replaced them with new employees.
Officials at the clinic won't comment on the case, saying only that they did what they had to do to serve their patients.
The strike in Alexandria is a good example of the potential problems striking workers face, according to Mark Partridge, an economist at St. Cloud State University.
"There's a tremendous amount of thought and reflection about whether you're striking. There's a chance of being permanently replaced or losing your job. The family is going to lose their livelihood for a certain time," Partridge says.
Walking the picket line is a final and desperate move for workers, according to John Budd, a professor of Human Resources at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.
Budd says by the time a strike starts, employees, their union and the company have been through months of negotiations, only to have everything break down.
Budd says when workers decide to strike, it's not to hurt their employer.
"Most workers support their employers. Few workers would want to see their employer damaged, or certainly not go out of business," Budd says. "So workers would only be striking when they feel that they've explored every other avenue, they've tried everything they think possible in negotiations, and see striking as a very last resort."
I've seen people crying because they've now got to make a decision whether to strike or not. It brings tears to your eyes. It's not easy, knowing that some of the people are going to lose their homes, lose their livelihood, lose their vehicles, lose their family.
Strikes are a last resort according to Louie Newman, a representative for the Machinists Union in St. Cloud. The public face of a strike, especially for TV cameras, is one of determined workers shouting union slogans, with signs thrust in the air. But behind the scenes, Newman says it's a different picture.
"I've seen people crying because they've got to make a decision whether to strike or not. It brings tears to your eyes," Newman says. "It's not easy, knowing that some of the people are going to lose their homes, lose their livelihood, lose their vehicles, lose their family."
Newman says there's a reason more than 95 percent of labor disagreements are settled without a strike.
"We don't like strikes. Employers think we do, but we don't. We try to avoid them as much as we can. But sometimes even the union officials can't persuade our members to change their position," Newman says.
Newman says that shows another dynamic at play behind the scenes. It's hard for union leaders and members to agree whether or not a strike is necessary. As advisors, union leaders have their hands full.
St. Cloud State economist Mark Partridge says leaders sometimes have to rein in workers pumped up to hit the picket lines.
"One of the reasons why you get a strike, at least researchers believe, is that it tends to be more that the union membership isn't fully aware of the environment the firm or the employer is working in," Partridge says.
Partridge says for the most part, union leaders understand what's worth going to battle over. They realize companies face plenty of competition and need to keep costs down. As unlikely as it may seem to some, labor leaders often agree with a company's contention that it's tough to improve wages and benefits.
Striking is a tough prospect for workers, but employers don't have it easy either.
U of M economist John Budd says company officials have plenty of issues of their own to worry about during a strike.
"There's tremendous cost to a strike. Not only to workers, obviously, who are without income, but also to companies who are trying to keep their business going, who are trying to keep services provided or not lose too much money," says Budd. "There's tremendous costs on all sides, financial costs and emotional costs."
Even when a company settles, there may be years of bad blood between union members and management.
Officials at several central Minnesota companies were contacted for this story, none returned calls. Economists say strikes are such a contentious issue, full of potential public relations problems, that company officials hesitate to talk about the issue at all.
Former Alexandria Clinic LPNs Jo Radil and Joyce Iverson still consider themselves on strike.
The picket lines are gone, and most people in Alexandria think the strike is over. After all they've been through, the nurses say they wouldn't change what they did. But Radil and Iverson both would go back if they could.
"If they say you're reinstated with back pay, I guess I have to do that. That's the right thing to do, that's what we fought for, so I'll take it if it comes," Radil says.
The Alexandria nurses' case has been before the National Labor Relations Board twice. Once the board ruled in the nurses' favor. But after an appeal by the Alexandria Clinic, the NLRB overturned that decision.
The nurses are challenging the second ruling and are waiting for an appeals court to hear their case. It's possible the case could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. That could add years to the nurses' already four-and-a-half year long strike.