3 weeks into strike, nurses union and Allina resume contract talks

Nurses walk the picket line
Nurses walk the picket line outside of Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis on Sept. 5.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News file

Negotiators for Allina Health and the nurses union resume contract talks today — three weeks after more than 4,000 hospital nurses went on strike over health benefits.

A federal mediator called negotiators back to the bargaining table last week, but that doesn't mean the two sides are ready to cut a deal.

Both Allina and the Minnesota Nurses Association have been loathe to make the first move in resuming contract negotiations after a 22-hour bargaining session in early September.

Instead, a federal mediator has now taken that first step for them. The invitation came as the number of nurses willing to cross the picket line has grown steadily to 567, according to Allina.

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However, that's not a factor in the union's calculations, nurse negotiator Angela Becchetti said, and nurses have not softened their contract demands.

"They're hoping that Allina will actually sit and negotiate with them," Becchetti said. "But I think they're resolved to sit there and continue to walk that picket line until their concerns are met."

The two parties are at loggerheads over Allina's demand that nurses give up their expensive and generous union-only health plans for less expensive, less generous corporate coverage.

If a deal isn't reached soon, striking nurses will lose the employer-paid portion of their health insurance on Oct. 1. Nurses could retain their insurance by paying the full premium, but that could be up to $2,500 for a month of family coverage.

Even so, Becchetti says that looming deadline won't affect the union's strategy in negotiations: "October 1 I don't think is going to be that big of an issue because these nurses have found other ways to get through it during this time."

Some nurses have found replacement coverage, Becchetti said, and others plan to go without because they can get it back if they need it — at least through November. Federal law allows someone to restore their insurance retroactively if they pay the full premium within 60 days of coverage ending.

The union has said for weeks that it's Allina's turn to counter the nurses latest proposal.

Allina spokesperson David Kanihan declined to say the company what the company's next move would be.

"I would just say we're going in prepared to work hard to reach a deal and we hope the union feels likewise," Kanihan said.

From Allina's perspective, Kanihan said, the two sides are not that far apart. They've already reached agreement in principle on adding 24/7 security to hospital emergency departments and a 2 percent annual wage increase for nurses, in addition to pay bumps based on seniority.

He says the main sticking point now is how — not whether — to shift nurses to corporate coverage.

Nurses want to be compensated for losing benefits and they want a say on any future changes to coverage.

Allina rejected those demands. Still, Kanihan thinks a compromise is possible.

"I think if we find a willing partner on Tuesday we'll be able to wrap this up and get our nurses back to the bedside," he said.

Right now, the signals coming from the union and Allina make it hard to gauge the likelihood of that occurring.

Monday night, in what could be seen as a provocative move, the union announced a rally for Tuesday morning outside the annual meeting of General Mills, where Allina's board chair is an executive.

University of Minnesota labor expert John Budd says the indicator to watch for progress at the table is the duration of talks.

Fruitful negotiations usually take time, he said.

"We could watch and see how long they stay behind closed doors. Longer would be better because presumably that means they're talking and trying to make progress," Budd said. "If they both show up expecting the other side to make a big change and neither of them does, and they leave after an hour or something, then that's a bad sign."

At the very least, Budd says, it's a good sign that both parties are willing to go back to the bargaining table because it's the only way to reach a settlement.