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After weeks on strike, Allina nurses approve new contract

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Minnesota Nurses
Allina Health nurses strike outside Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis on Sept. 5 as they began an open-ended strike.
Jim Mone | AP file

Updated: Oct. 14, 7:49 a.m. | Posted: Oct. 13, 10:16 p.m.

More than 4,000 Allina nurses return to work as soon as this weekend after ratifying a new contract Thursday. 

The vote caps off a divisive nine-month bargaining process that resulted in two separate strikes. The first walkout in June lasted a week. The current strike stretched to 37 days — just a day shy of a state nursing strike record set in 1984.

The ratification comes days after the governor's office intervened in the dispute and called negotiators back to the bargaining table.

There wasn't much joy in the announcement from union leaders that their members had approved a new contract. 

After fighting for months to preserve their union-only health plans, nurses agreed to relinquish them and shift to Allina's less expensive corporate insurance. 

But Minnesota Nurses Association Executive Director Rose Roach said nurses did win an important concession. 

"While it's certainly nowhere near what the nurses deserve, nurses can hold their head high," she said. "They can rest easy knowing that they won a no-diminishment clause that ensures that the value of their health benefits won't be reduced in some future cost-cutting scheme."

Health insurance was a major sticking point throughout contract negotiations. Allina ultimately succeeded in moving nurses to its corporate insurance. But the company had to guarantee that the value of its most popular plan wouldn't change through 2021. Allina also agreed to put up to $2,500 in nurses' health reimbursement or health savings plans, if they move into the corporate plans within that five-year window.

The union said the "vast majority" of nurses voted for the contract. But Roach said that doesn't mean they're ready to put this painful labor dispute to rest. 

"This certainly isn't the last time you will hear them speak. A contract isn't a suture. It's a Band-Aid. The wounds inflicted on the nurses since February will not heal overnight," she said. "The nurses have continually felt disrespected and devalued."

Allina said in a brief statement that it appreciated the nurses' ratification of the agreement.

Ross Azevedo, a professor emeritus of industrial relations at the University of Minnesota's Carlson business school, said hurt feelings will not go away easily, but time will help.

"People do want to maintain what we might call a normal relationship. And again, you can't hate forever. You can't fight forever. At some point you've got to go on and work with what's there," he said. 

Even though nurses lost a benefit that was important to them and weeks of wages and health insurance, Azevedo believes they still emerged the winner in the labor fight. He said nurses didn't roll over when asked to give up a cherished benefit.

"They circled the wagons. They put up a fence that's defended the position better than if they just simply caved in to what the employer wanted." 

But John Budd, a labor relations expert at the University of Minnesota, said nurses did lose. 

"Ultimately, if you just look at sort of the bottom line in that who really got what they wanted, it was Allina," he said. 

The precedent set by the Allina contract could have ripple effects for other Minnesota hospitals. Other union nurses at other hospital systems still have union-only health plans.  

Budd said those hospitals face the same health insurance pressures and are likely looking for ways to reduce costs too.

"I think that's something to clearly watch for, whether those hospitals will be content to keep going with the status quo and the existing plan. Or whether they'll look to the Allina settlement and say, Allina was able to get away from that plan and we want to do the same thing."