Allina nurses authorize open-ended strike

Nurses strike outside of United Hospital.
Nurses on strike march outside of United Hospital on June 20.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Updated: 3:30 p.m. | Posted: 5:39 a.m.

Twin Cities nurses have authorized an open-ended strike at five Allina hospitals. The same group of 4,800 union nurses walked off the job for a week in June.

Nurse negotiator Angela Becchetti said rank-and-file members overwhelmingly rejected Allina's latest contract offer.

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"I think it's important that we came out strong," Becchetti said. "We might be out of our jobs for a while and we're prepared for that to get our voice out there."

The Minnesota Nurses Association says Allina's offer is unacceptable because it would force nurses to bear the brunt of premium increases on their union-only health insurance plans.

The contract proposal would cap the growth of its subsidy at 2 percent a year. Nurses would be on the hook for anything over that.

Allina said the move is necessary because the union-only plans are much more expensive than the corporate insurance it offers to the rest of its employees.

Spokesperson David Kanihan said Allina is disappointed that nurses rejected a fair offer.

"Clearly we had hoped it wouldn't come to this," Kanihan said. "But it is our obligation to care for our community and we certainly intend to do that no matter what happens going forward."

The affected hospitals are Abbott Northwestern and Phillips Eye Institute in Minneapolis, United in St. Paul, Unity in Fridley and Mercy in Coon Rapids.

The vote doesn't mean any changes yet, though.

"All they've done is approved a strike," said John Budd, a labor relations expert at the University of Minnesota, and a strike would hurt both sides. "Certainly there's plenty of scope for going back to the bargaining table before needing to talk concretely about the possibility of a strike."

Kanihan said Allina has been preparing for another strike for some time, although he wouldn't elaborate on what plans the health system has put in place. In June, Allina hired 1,400 replacement nurses to cover that weeklong strike.

The vote to authorize an open-ended strike demonstrates that nurses are serious about their demands, but doesn't mean the rank and file are eager for a strike, especially one that with no end date, Budd said.

"I think the union just has to be careful here in how it's going to build up support and build up enthusiasm for a second strike when they've already gone out on strike once," Budd said, "and that strike wasn't enough to win the game that they were looking for."

Allina also needs to be careful about further alienating its nurses, he said.

Nurses negotiators say they anticipate that federal mediators will call both sides back to the bargaining table one last time now that another strike has been authorized.

If union leaders call a strike, they have to provide 10 days' notice.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.