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Nurses give negotiators authorization to call strike: Union says Allina isn't taking nurses seriously

For months, registered nurses (RNs) at Regina Hospital and administrators for Allina Health have been trying to reach an agreement on a union contract that expired at the end of 2013. The disagreement falls primarily on two parts of the contract: nurses want Allina, which purchased the Regina facility last September, to offer the same pension and health plan options that are currently offered at Allina’s other metro area hospitals. The last negotiation session was held March 6.

With neither side giving significant ground, however, nurses voted last Tuesday, March 18, to authorize their Minnesota Nurses Association negotiating committee to issue a strike notice if further talks break down.

“We hope we can return to the table and Allina realizes how serious we are about not being considered a second-rate community hospital,” said MNA negotiator and Regina RN Jane Traynor.

“It’s taking negotiations to the next step, and it’s a sign of commitment and preparedness on the nurses’ side that they’re determined to get a fair and equitable contract,” she said.

Earlier this year, nurses had stated they would keep working while MNA and Allina negotiators attempted to find common ground. But the lack of progress pushed the nurses to take further action.

“There’s been no progress,” Traynor said, “and management has not been willing to sit down and negotiate with us.

“They don’t seem to be taking us seriously, and they keep repeating ‘this is good for Regina.’”

Representatives from Allina offered a response to the vote.

“We are disappointed in the outcome of this vote,” a statement from Allina read. “We are committed to offering nurses a deal that is fair and competitive so that we can continue to attract and retain exceptional caregivers. We’re confident that the proposal the hospital has on the table accomplishes that. Our offer features a pay increase over current wages, as well as better benefits at a lower cost than what Regina nurses currently have.”

The Allina proposal includes a 4.5 percent wage increase over three years in addition to step increases. Allina says the health plan being offered provides more choices and better plans at significantly lower prices than previous plans. Allina is also offering participation in a 401(k) program that includes an automatic annual contribution from Allina as well as an employer match.

Nurses say that their prime concern is that, without the same pension and health plan benefits, Regina could experience a high turnover rate in its nursing staff, because other Allina network facilities that do include these particular benefits are as close as 20 minutes away from Hastings.

“What incentive do our nurses have to stay at Regina Medical Center if they can get better choices in health insurance and a pension plan in River Falls or St. Paul?” Traynor said.

“Turnover is always chaotic and disruptive. I’m concerned that patients won’t get the continuity of care they deserve,” she added.

Although nurses within the union have authorized a strike, there’s a chance that they may not do so. It all depends on how future negotiations go.

“Hopefully this step helps management or Allina see that we’re furious and determined, and we continue to talk, but if the talks continue to go nowhere, it gives us an option,” Traynor said.

“It was a very difficult step for us to take, but we think this is very important at this time and that the nurses deserve a first-rate contract, and the Regina patients deserve first-rate care, the kind they’ve been accustomed to for the past 60 years.”

If the matter does come to a strike, Allina says patients won’t be affected.

“While we of course hope it doesn’t come to that, the hospital will continue to serve patients in the event of a strike,” said David Kanihan, vice president of marketing and communications for Allina Health.

“Allina will supply trained staff to perform the duties of nurses who choose to participate in a strike,” he added. “Patients will not be affected.”

Taking it to the public

Nurses in Hastings aren’t the only ones speaking publicly about the issue of pension and health benefits. Other nurses within the Allina umbrella have joined Hastings nurses and have hosted informational pickets at other locations. Most recently, they picketed at Allina’s United Hospital in St. Paul Wednesday afternoon, March 19.

“Like other Allina MNA RNs, Regina Medical Center nurses are committed to delivering quality nursing  care to the community they serve,” said Bernadine (Bunny) Engeldorf, RN and MNA co-chair at United Hospital. “As they deliver that same quality care, they should expect a fair contract including, health care and pension benefits.  We’re all telling Allina Health to do the right thing.”

Nurses held another informational picket at Allina’s Abbott Northwestern Hospital on Feb. 11, 2014, and March 19 at United Hospital in St. Paul.  The MNA Allina Council of Bargaining Unit Chairs delivered a petition to Allina CEO Ken Paulus on Mar. 6, sending notice the public actions will continue until the situation in Hastings is resolved.