Updated: 6:20 p.m. | Posted: 6:45 a.m.
Union nurses at five Twin Cities Allina Health hospitals have set Labor Day as a strike date.
The Minnesota Nurses Association announced its strike plan Friday morning at the Labor Hall on the grounds of the State Fair, flanked by representatives from other unions.
"We're here today because Allina Health continues to ignore the voice of their nurses. Instead of listening to what nurses say, Allina is intent on telling them what they need," said nurses union leader Rose Roach.
The dispute involves nurses at Abbott Northwestern, United, Mercy and Unity hospitals, as well as the Phillips Eye Institute.
The nurses want to keep their generous, but relatively high-cost, union-only health plans. Allina wants them to shift into its corporate plans. Those offerings have lower monthly premiums but come with potentially larger out-of-pocket costs than do the nurses-only plans.
The two sides should continue trying to work out a deal, said Allina Spokesman David Kanihan. Announcing a second strike date isn't going to help bring them together, he said.
"I think that's the wrong way fundamentally to get to this issue," Kanihan said.
The nurses struck for one week in June over the dispute. The next one could go much longer.
"We're willing to strike to save our insurance. We're prepared to be out for as long as it takes to protect our lives and livelihoods," said negotiating team member Angela Becchetti.
The other union leaders unions at the news conference pledged their solidarity.
"We plan to be on the picket lines with MNA for as long as it takes for them to get a fair and decent contract," said Eliot Seide, who leads AFSCME Council Five and it's 40,000 government workers. "Yesterday our executive board decided also that to start out the strike from for MNA we're giving them a check for $10,000 for their strike fund."
As of mid-June, the nurses union had investment assets topping $4 million, a large majority of it dedicated to a strike fund.
The nurses hope calling an open-ended strike will apply more pressure to Allina.
University of Minnesota labor relations professor John Remington said the threat raises the stakes for both sides. Remington speculated there will be very serious last-ditch negotiating between now and Labor Day.
"You know the parties have to seriously engage and then sort of assess each other's bottom lines so this could be some real hard bargaining in the next week or so," he said.
John Budd, another U professor, said the union and management appear so dug in over the health insurance dispute that he's not optimistic about the possibility of a settlement anytime soon.
"At some point there is the possibility that Allina just decides they're done negotiating," said Budd.
Budd says Allina might end up declaring negotiations are at an impasse and imposing a contact on the nurses.
"Under labor law companies don't have to agree to anything, they only have an obligation to bargain in good faith," he said.
Union leader Rose Roach erupted at the thought of Allina imposing a contract.
"Really? That's a nuclear option. Why on earth would an employer do that to nurses? It's outrageous," Roach said.
Union leaders promised they would challenge an imposed contract with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging Allina has not been negotiating in good faith.
Allina spokesman David Kanihan said the health system wants to continue talks. But just like the union, Allina is accusing the other side of failing to negotiate. He said Allina plans to have teams of replacement nurses ready to staff the hospitals, as the company did during the one-week strike in June.
"We don't want a strike. We believe a strike can be avoided. We now have 10 days to do that and I hope that can occur," Kanihan said. "But if a strike should go forward, we will be prepared."
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