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Mary Turner, elected new president of Minnesota Nurses Association, sees nurses as change agents

From the Minneapolis Labor Review
January 22, 2016

By Steve Share, Minneapolis Labor Review editor

MINNEAPOLIS —“I think out of all the jobs you can have, nursing feeds your soul — even though it’s physically taxing,” said Mary Turner. “It’s the type of job that at the end of the day, no matter how taxing, you can say, ‘I made a difference.’”

In voting results announced December 2, Mary Turner won a contested election to become president of the 20,000-member Minnesota Nurses Association.

She succeeds Linda Hamilton, who chose to not run for re-election.

Turner spoke with the Labor Review about her long career in health care, her passion for the nursing profession, her rapid rise to the leadership in the MNA — and her belief that nurses can be powerful agents of change in the world.

‘Nurses are the most trusted profession in the nation. How powerful we could be in changing the world — if we believed it and used it.’
—Mary Turner,
MNA president

Turner, 55,  is a life-long resident of the Minneapolis area. She was born at St.  Mary’s hospital, she related, and grew up in south Minneapolis, New Hope and Crystal. She attended Cooper High School and, after working several years, went to North Hennepin Community College.

Turner now lives in Plymouth and has four grown children ages 23, 25, 26, 29.

Candy striper

At age 12,  Turner began volunteering as a candy striper at St. Therese Nursing Home in New Hope right down the street from her home. “We actually wore the little pinstripe uniform,” she said. “It was hideous.”

And, she pointed out, “back in 1972, a little 12-year-old was allowed to do a lot more than they are now. That’s a good change as far as safety.”

Turner said her mom encouraged her to become a candy striper so she could get job experience and get a paid job at age 16. And, when Turner turned 16, she indeed was hired at St. Therese as a nursing assistant.

“That’s when I got involved in the labor movement,” Turner said. “I worked every shift and the night shift. I became a representative for the night shift on our employee relations committee.” The issue that moved her to get involved: “to improve the holiday meal for the night shift.”

“I’ve come a ways,” Turner said. “My latest issue is workplace violence.”
That early advocacy experience came naturally to Turner. “I’m very much an activist at heart,” she said.

“I’ve always felt, from 16 years old on, if you do your job the way you’re supposed to… you should not be afraid to voice your opinion respectfully to your employer,” Turner said.

Turner worked eight years as a nursing assistant at St. Therese, then worked there another 10 years in human resources. “Back then it was called personnel. I did it all.”


With three children still in diapers, Turner went back to school to pursue her nursing degree at  North Hennepin Community College, graduating in 1995 and becoming a Registered Nurse.

She went to work the following year at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, working  there 10 years and serving as an MNA floor steward.

In 2006, she moved to North Memorial Hospital.

With Turner’s election as MNA president, she continues to work at North Memorial 24 hours a week in intensive care.

She also continues to view nursing as the most rewarding of careers. “All aspects of a human being is involved when you work in nursing,” she said. “Physical, mental, spiritual, emotional — all of that comes into play when you’re in nursing.”


As recently as 2010, Turner said, she hadn’t been very involved as a leader in her union, not even as a unit chair or chief steward.

But then, she said, “I got on the bargaining team in 2010 when we did the one-day strike. I decided I wanted to get more involved.”

Turner shared a story about the 2010 strike. When everyone was dragging at 1:00 a.m., she related, she climbed up on a rock and spoke to 100 nurses, rousing the crowd.

“I realized at the age of 50 that I could speak in public,” she said. “That was the starting point to think I could do the job I’ve now been elected to do.”
Turner ran for the MNA board and was elected. “That term was the first time I did anything at that level,” she said.

Once she joined the MNA board, she continued, “I realized I represented the whole state.” She decided “my duty now was to visit nurses at the various hospitals. I managed to hit all four corners of the state… I loved going to nurse meetings and elections… I learned a lot.”

Turner next decided to run for MNA’s second vice president position — and lost by seven votes.

MNA president Linda Hamilton encouraged Turner to join MNA’s government affairs committee and to put her name in for committee chair. She did and served two terms in that role.

“My pride and joy would be that I was the leader behind the 2015 Workplace Violence Protection Bill,” she said. “It was a feat to get the bill introduced and passed in one session — with bi-partisan support.”

Late in 2015, with mentor Linda Hamilton stepping down, Turner ran her successful campaign for MNA president.

“I have a very short history at the state level,” she acknowledged, adding she brings with her years of experience from the nursing floor to steward to committee chair. “It’s so important to have all the levels.”

Over the years, Turner said, her political views have evolved. But “no matter what political affiliation I’ve had, I’ve always felt employees have a right to a voice in the workplace,” she said.

Looking forward, Turner said, “I would like to see the nurses become a more active political force — just like the teachers.”

“We have a vested interest as nurses,” she said. “Everything is all inter-connected… For instance, someone who doesn’t have insurance or can’t afford meds ends up in the intensive care unit.”

“I just want nurses to know how valuable they are to their communities and how instrumental they could be to changing the world,” Turner said. “The reason: because nurses are the most trusted profession in the nation. How powerful we could be in changing the world — if we believed it and used it.”

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