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High-stakes Allina nurses strike remains at standstill after two weeks

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Minnesota Nurses
Allina Health nurses protest outside Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis on Sept. 5.
Jim Mone | AP file

The open-ended nurses strike at Allina Health is now approaching the end of its second week. More than 4,000 nurses have been off the job since Labor Day in a dispute over health insurance. 

Allina and the Minnesota Nurses Association both say they want the nurses to return to patients' bedsides. 

But no new talks are scheduled, and neither side is asking to return to the table. 

Where do negotiations stand?

They're at a standstill. Resuming negotiations is the key to getting a deal and ending the strike. But neither side wants to make the first move. And a federal mediator has not stepped in yet to bring them back to the bargaining table. 

How is this strike different from the one-week walkout in June?

The rhetoric is definitely different now. During the June strike, the nurses questioned the quality of care that Allina's replacement nurses were providing. There hasn't been much mention of that this time around. The union says it is receiving far fewer reports from workers inside the hospital during this strike — a development it attributes to an information blackout by Allina. 

But this strike is also quite different from the one-week walkout. There's more at stake financially with the open-ended nature of this strike. The union says nurses are much more interested in learning why they're in this predicament. So the union has focused on questioning Allina's business dealings. 

It accused the company of orchestrating the dissolution of a community hospital board that overseas public spending at Allina's Unity Hospital. The union also alledged that Allina got caught up in a predatory financial deal that cost it and several other organizations millions in extra fees.   

Allina rebutted those claims in statements and on MPR News.

"There are mistruths and actually quite honestly lies being spoken about not only our organization, but other organizations too in how finances are being managed," said Allina CEO Penny Wheeler. "And that is just unfair. The ends don't justify the means."

The union responded that Allina has opened itself up to this kind of scrutiny. 

"Allina has brought up their finances, and the reason they need to switch the health plans is about saving $10 million," said Rose Roach, executive director of the Minnesota Nurses Association. "[If] you're going to open up the door to finances, we get to question finances. And that's exactly what we're doing in this particular case."

What developments are worth watching for?

Obviously, a resumption of talks. That would be the first sign of movement toward a deal. And then the question is: Who initiates? Who shows the first sign of being willing to compromise? Or does it come from the federal mediator? 

The number of nurses who cross the picket line could also influence the length of this strike. At last count, Allina says, 489 regular nurses had gone back to their jobs, and that number keeps growing. If that number surges in the next week or so, that would signal eroding support within the union for the strike, and it could snowball.

Also, Oct. 1 could become a real squeeze point for the union. That's when the nurses' company-paid health coverage stops if the strike is still going. And remember the central issue in this dispute has been whether the nurses get to keep their current health plans.    

What are the pressures on Allina?

This is really expensive for the company. They're paying replacement nurses double the rate employee nurses get. And they risk alienating other labor groups. As Wheeler said this week, Allina's workforce is highly unionized. 

So there's a lot at stake for both sides.