Negotiators for 400 nurses reached a tentative agreement on a contract with St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth early Wednesday, following an all-night negotiating session.
Another 900 nurses at SMDC Health System are still poised to strike, but observers say a settlement at one hospital makes a walkout at the other less likely.
Representatives of the Minnesota Nurses Association say they're happy with the tentative contract.
Nurses have said all along they were less concerned about pay and benefits than they were about inadequate staffing levels and gaining more control to ensure staffing is sufficient.
The agreement calls for a joint nurse-management committee that will make recommendations on staffing, and a stronger voice from nurses in determining when to close a unit due to new admissions because of understaffing.
Nurses will have input into a code of conduct the hospital wanted to impose. They'll also keep a system of salary raises designed to move them closer toward parity with Twin Cities nurses.
Union spokesman John Nemo called it a groundbreaking development.
"For the first time ever now, nurses at St. Lukes have the type of safe staffing language in their contract that we've had in the Twin Cities in some hospitals since the late 1990s," he said.
St. Luke's officials issued a statement saying they're pleased with the tentative agreement, and that both sides "worked hard and bargained in good faith for a fair resolution."
The settlement at St. Luke's is likely to put pressure on negotiators for SMDC and its more than 900 nurses. The nurses rejected what the hospital called its last contract offer, and are now planning to call a one-day strike.
Tony Barrett, who teaches economics at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, said the first settlement makes that potential strike a lot less likely.
"We essentially have a duopoly up here for health care ... and if one has labor peace and the other is under threat of strike, that just puts them in an uncomfortable position," Barrett said. "And now that St. Luke's has reached agreement, you typically see in a situation like this the other party doing a virtual copy of that agreement."
On top of the threat that a strike would hurt business at SMDC, the St. Luke's settlement could add pressure at the bargaining table, University of Minnesota labor expert John Budd said.
"Same types of workers, same types of economic and social concerns on the side of the hospitals, so the hospital can say to workers, 'well the nurses at the other hospital accepted this, why isn't it acceptable to you?' " Budd said. "The nurses can say the same thing to the hospital management: 'these terms are acceptable to the other hospital, how come you can't live with them?' "
A spokeswoman for SMDC said hospital officials are pleased St. Luke's reached an agreement, and want to learn more details. She said it would be up to a federal mediator to call for more talks.
At St. Luke's, that nurse-management team will sit down soon and begin the process of recommending staffing levels. They have to work from the ground up and will first need to work out a system to measure the severity of a patient's condition and the intensity of nursing needed. That helps determine how demanding it is to take care of various types of patients.
It can be challenging to work together after the hard feelings engendered in a labor dispute. Budd, a professor of Human Resources in the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, said the task itself can be part of the healing process.
"The community is vested in having high-quality health care, which requires the nurses and managers to work together," he said. "So sometimes these joint initiatives can be a good thing, they might be difficult but it helps the parties work through these issues faster rather than have these tensions linger for weeks or months or maybe even years."
The union will have it members vote on the tentative contract with St. Luke's a week from today.
It's unclear when or whether new talks will be scheduled at SMDC.