A lengthy labor dispute between Duluth nurses and two local hospitals appears to be all but over.
Negotiators for about 900 nurses and SMDC/Essentia Health tentatively agreed to a new contract Wednesday afternoon. The agreement averts a possible one-day strike that had been scheduled for next Tuesday.
The SMDC agreement comes exactly one week after a new contract was reached between nearby St. Luke's hospital and negotiators for its 400 registered nurses.
With the help of a federal mediator, nurse and hospital negotiators reached an agreement after 27 hours of talks that were interrupted briefly for a breakfast break this morning.
The union representing nurses called the new contract historic, because it includes staffing language that allows nurses to close a unit to admissions if they get too busy. The contract also gives nurses the right to refuse new patient assignments if they feel they can't care for those additional patients safely.
Similar contract concessions were won by nurses at St. Luke's hospital last week. In both cases the union is strongly urging members to approve the deals.
"For Duluth nurses to win this -- and it is a major win -- is a very big deal, very significant," said John Nemo, a spokesman for the Minnesota Nurses Association, "because the unsafe staffing is far worse in Duluth than it is in the Twin Cities."
Twin Cities union nurses have had similar staffing language in their contracts for more than a decade, although they say it has not been that effective at resolving staffing problems.
This spring, Twin Cities nurses asked metro-area hospitals for strict nurse-to-patient staffing ratios in their contracts. Despite a one-day strike, they didn't prevail. Both sides agreed instead to renew their efforts at working out staffing problems within their existing contract language.
Tony Barrett, an economist at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, says it is significant that the Duluth nurses won staffing concessions that are similar to those already in place in the Twin Cities. But he says that doesn't mean that nurses are the big winners in this new contract agreement.
"This is pretty much a draw," Barrett said. "The nurses got the language they wanted. The administration is satisfied with that language, they can live with it, obviously, or they wouldn't have agreed to it. And they've controlled a wage cost at a reasonable level."
The contract for SMDC nurses calls for a wage freeze in the first year of the contract; a 1 percent increase the second year, with an additional .8 percent added in the second six months of year two; and a 2 percent increase the third year.
St. Luke's nurses are voting Wednesday on whether to accept their new contract offer. The union says it expects its members will ratify the agreement. Their contract includes pay increases of 0 percent in year 1; 1 percent in year two; and 2 percent in year three.
The two agreements are equivalent economically, because the St. Luke's contract includes increased health insurance contributions, while SMDC's includes the additional .8 percent increase at the midpoint of year two.
Administrators at SMDC are hoping their nurses will approve their contract when they vote on it this Friday.
President and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tom Patnoe says the negotiations were very difficult at times. But he believes his hospital and its nurses will have a good working relationship going forward.
"I think both the teams left the negotiating table under good terms," said Patnoe. "It, of course, has been stressful, as are most labor negotiating processes. But I am totally convinced our organization will overcome this. And it certainly is a much better alternative than going through a strike."
Labor experts say the contract agreements reached in Duluth and the Twin Cities this summer will likely be used as blueprints for other contract negotiations that are underway between nurses and hospitals in other parts of the state.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story included incorrect information, provided by the Minnesota Nurses Association, regarding the salary increases included in the tentative contract agreement for nurses at SMDC/Essentia. The current version is correct.