Allina nurses strike ends, but impasse remains

Published 10:10 am Monday, June 27, 2016

By Matt Sepic FM

The Minnesota Nurses Association and top officials at Allina Health say they hope to get back to the bargaining table as soon as possible. About 4,800 Twin Cities nurses returned to work Sunday after a weeklong strike at four Allina hospitals and the Phillips Eye Institute.

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However, the nurses union and hospital management each say they’re no closer to a deal on a health plan than they were when the strike began.

The nurses walked off the job June 19 after negotiators for their union and Allina could not reach a deal. Union leaders planned the strike to last just seven days; it was never meant to be open-ended.

At Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, union nurses showed up for work at 7 a.m. Sunday. Clad in navy blue scrubs, they filed into the building after their non-union replacements clocked out and left through a separate door.

Abbott nurse Angela Becchetti, who is part of her union’s bargaining committee, said that while the strike did not result in a new contract, it strengthened the resolve of the rank and file.

“We became more of a family now. We’re more united and ready to get on with this,” she said. “We don’t have a negotiation date set but we did send a message to Allina.”

The main sticking point remains the nurses’ health plan. They want to keep the insurance plan they have through the union. To cut costs, the company wants them to switch to a corporate plan 30,000 other employees use called Allina First.

The union insurance has higher monthly premiums than the company’s. But nurses fear their out-of-pocket expenses will skyrocket under Allina First.

Despite the impasse, Becchetti said she is eager to get back to the bargaining table. That’s at least one thing she and Allina CEO Dr. Penny Wheeler agree on.

Wheeler said the transition to and from the replacement nurses went well, and no patients were at risk. But Wheeler said the strike was an expensive distraction that accomplished nothing.

“I don’t think a strike helps anybody, frankly. I don’t know that it helps our patients, I don’t know that it helps our communities, I don’t know that it helps the nurses, who had longed to be at the bedside,” she said. “And I think it’s a disruption organizationally. Did it move the negotiation strategy along? I firmly quite honestly don’t believe so.”

Wheeler said the more than 1,300 replacement nurses hired through agencies were paid at a premium and the company had to cover the travel costs for those coming in from out of town. She didn’t say what the final tab was, but the MNA pegs it at around $25 million.

Throughout the strike Wheeler has pointed out that union nurses at three of the company’s other hospitals — in Hastings, Faribault and Plymouth — already have the Allina First plan.

Ross Azevedo, a professor emeritus of industrial relations at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson business school, said the union’s acceptance of the company health insurance at those hospitals is a definite disadvantage for the nurses in negotiations.

“One of the things you always look to in bargaining is what are the comparables? And here’s the comparable where the other nurses’ unions have accepted this position of the company, and so that weakens the nurses’ position. There’s no question about that,” he said.

Azevedo said that until there’s a final agreement, it’s impossible to tell whether the union’s strategy of holding a seven-day strike with a clear end date was a success.

Meanwhile, nurses at Abbott Northwestern, United, Mercy and Unity hospitals, and the Phillips Eye Institute will continue to work without a contract.

Becchetti said another strike “could potentially happen,” but that’s something the rank and file would have to decide in a vote.

Becchetti and Wheeler each say they’re hopeful a federal mediator will call them back to the table in the coming days.