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The 6 things you need to know to understand the Allina nurses strike

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

When nurses go on strike against a health-care group over health care insurance, it’s pretty clear that the health care system in this country is, um, unique.

On Sunday, 4,800 Allina Health nurses marched off the job at five metro area hospitals after calling a seven-day strike. The fundamental issue: health care coverage.

The nurses want to maintain the health care plan they have, a plan nurses have at four of the five other major health care groups in the metro. (Fairview, North Memorial Methodist and Health East all provide the coverage Allina nurses are striking to maintain. Nurses at Children’s Hospital gave up a similar plan years ago.)

Allina claims that if the nurses move to the plan they offer to other Allina employees, the not-for-profit health care system would save $10 million a year, money it says could be used for improving patient care. The nurses’ union, the Minnesota Nurses Association, questions that number, which amounts to about $2,800 a year per nurse. Additionally, the nurses say, that even though they pay higher monthly premiums with the plan they’ve had for decades, the co-pays and deductibles are vastly superior to those offered in the Allina plans.

Those are the basics.

But what else do you need to know to understand the seven-day strike?

1. It’s not about the money
The nurses insist that this is an unfair labor practices strike, not an economic strike. There’s an important reason for the distinction. In an economic action — such as the dispute at American Crystal Sugar a few years ago — workers can be permanently replaced. In unfair labor practice strikes, workers can be replaced only on a temporary basis.

In this case, the union says Allina is using unfair labor tactics because it will not negotiate on any issues until the nurses accept the Allina health care plan. Allina claims that’s not true — that it offered the nurses a full contract package, including a wage boost. The company also said it addressed concerns nurses have about workplace safety. But Allina’s “offer” included what the nurses considered to be a poison pill: acceptance of the Allina health care plan.

“What can possibly be unfair about nurses accepting the same plan that every other Allina employee has?” said company spokesman David Kanihan.

He also said that the Allina plan offers three choices. Still, without nurses’ acceptance of a health insurance change, there is nothing on the table.  

2. Both sides have theories as to what the strike is really about
Allina believes that the Minnesota Nurses Association has timed this strike to coincide with nurses’ union strikes in other parts of the country. Why do that? Because there is a limited pool of qualified temp workers to draw on to replace the striking nurses, which drives up Allina’s cost. The union claims that the 1,400 replacement nurses who have come to Allina facilities in the Twin Cities from all over the country are being paid $8,400 a week, plus travel expenses, lodging and meals. Allina nurses are paid, on average, $42 an hour. Allina will not say how much replacements are being paid.

Union leaders have theories of their own as to what’s driving the strike. The other major health care groups settled with their nurses quickly in February, and the words “health insurance” were not uttered in those negotiations. Allina, many local labor leaders believe, is a stalking horse for the other major health care groups. If it can get its nurses to give up on their health care plan, the other health groups will follow suit in future negotiations.

3. Yes, the seven-day strike strategy is unusual
Anybody who’s dealt with labor issues knows that strikes are a little like war. They’re easy to start, but damned hard to end. But this strike has a clearly defined end point,  7 a.m. Monday, June 27. (Allina is not obligated to bring all nurses back immediately.)

This may seem like a cushy way to strike. You miss only one paycheck, probably don’t miss out on any benefits, picket from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and then Monday go back to work. It should be noted that the nurses do not receive strike benefits, though there is an emergency fund to help nurses in particularly rough shape.

According to labor leaders, any union could declare a short-term strike. It’s just that, from a strategic point-of-view, end-certain strikes don’t make much sense in the private sector. Indeed, the one wedge that private sector unions have is hurting the bottom line of a company. If the company knows its teamsters or pressmen or butchers are going to only strike for seven days, or 10 days or even a month, they can ride it out with a combination of temp employees and supervisory staff doing the heavy lifting. On the other hand, a strike seemingly without end can force both sides to come to agreement.

Will a seven-day strike have an impact in this case? The nurses are highly skilled and key to the smooth-running of the hospitals. Additionally, they could announce next month that they’re going out for another week and they could continue to take those actions. (Nurses are required by law to give 10 days notice prior to walking out.) Still, once workers miss a check or two, striking becomes less and less palatable.

4. Allina really doesn’t like the way the nurses talk about the health care plan
Even Allina admits there are substantial differences between the health insurance the nurses have and the health insurance Allina is demanding the nurses take. But Allina bristles at what they believe are the “apples to oranges’’ comparisons nurses on the picket line are making in the media. In some cases, Allina says, the nurses  are comparing their current plan to the “basic” Allina plan, which is a bottom-of-the-barrel plan offered to all Allina employees. Allina says only a few of its employees use the basic plan. According to Allina, most use the top-of-the-line Allina First plan, which Allina says is an excellent plan, offering considerable choices.

5. The health care plan isn’t the only issue
There are a few other issues in play, including staffing. The nurses want a staffing ratio established, meaning a certain number of nurses would have to be working depending on the number of hospital patients. Allina doesn’t like that idea, instead it wants more “flexibility.’’ Nurses also want more training, especially in dealing with issues of violence. Allina doesn’t seem to have an issue with that.

6. It’s something of a Minnesota-nice strike
There are bruised feelings on both sides but overall, this so far seems like a pretty civil dispute. With a few exceptions, the striking nurses are even not hassling the replacement nurses who are crossing picket lines. As Angela Becchetti, a rapid response nurse at Abbbott Northwestern and a member of the negotiating committee, says of the civility: “We care about the health of our patients.’’ 

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Tom Jones on 06/22/2016 - 01:56 pm.

    When reading up on this nursing strike, I keep looking, yet haven’t found, mention of the excise tax on high cost insurance plans that will be implemented in the year 2020 as a provision of the Affordable Care Act. I would guess that rather than Allina being a “stalking horse” for the other hospitals, Allina is likely just ahead of its game, settling its health insurance policies among its employees prior to the year that the tax will be implemented.

  2. Submitted by Nate Thompson on 06/22/2016 - 02:51 pm.

    Impact of Health Ins. proposal on take home pay-an example

    Our household is one that has a striking member. It isn’t always clear what the proposal impact by management is for an RN when people here the news about the strike issues so I thought I would share an example. In our case our family is insured through the current RN health plan. The changes proposed by management would result in a 30% reduction in take home pay (Comparing Annual Salary – New Health Care Costs) for our family because our out of pocket health care costs would go up by $7000. Almost all nurses are part time so this is huge percent cut in income. Due to pre-existing conditions we would be guaranteed to hit maximum out of pocket each year- no way around it. The proposal also introduces some serious cost risks to out of network care (which are above this cap) which impacts things like where our kids can go to college and still be covered.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/22/2016 - 03:52 pm.

    Given that the health care insurance plans are the crux of this strike’s issue, it would behoove us to have a real comparison of what the plans are: If the nurses are giving up a good, fairly traditional plan for one of the soak-the-sick high-deductible, high out-of-pocket plans that the private insurance world seems to push everyone toward–and they are NOT good deals for the consumer–then we need to know that.

    Doug makes a good start–much better than the Star Tribune!–at detailing what’s in conflict in this strike. He goes beyond the process play-by-play in which only external activity is talked about, but still not deep enough. This is not politics or a baseball game, there is substance to be revealed to the public if we’re to understand what labor actually tries to do for its members, that private companies simply are loathe to comply with.

    Go, Nurses!

    • Submitted by Mary Weir on 06/24/2016 - 08:15 pm.

      The reason that individual plans are so bad and going to get worse is Obama Care. The original plan through it made the penalty for not getting insurance $2,000.00 the first year. Higher as years went by. The incentive was to get healthy people in the plan right away so the risk pool would include healthy and sick people to balance each other out. pluenif the fine is big enough to force heathy people to join as insurance would be less costly. Our politicians reneged on that any put the fines next to nothing. guess what only the sick signed up so the plans lost a ton of money. Premiums did not cover the costs. Not until all are paying and all are covered will this change. Middle incomes are screwed while the poor pay nothing and the rich don’t care. Mpls teachers pay 700/month premiums and $2,000/deductible for each member. Welcome to reality. Oh and teachers make $25/hour

  4. Submitted by andrej sagaidak on 07/16/2016 - 01:32 pm.

    So sad what this is all come to. This shows the negative side MNA is taking. Lets scare the community which is totally false. I was on the inside. The transition went smooth. The replacement nurses were friendly, skilled and caring. This is what they do.

    This shows that MNA is always against their employer, which I have never understood. Even when I was in MNA. I feel like they should work together to support the nurse. I never appreciated that MNA gave false information, so then the nurses do not know what to do.

    The patients are cared for and the hospital environment is safe. There are so many support staff doing a wonderful job during this time along with the replacement nurses.

    Keep in mind MNA nurses- you keep your insurance, support staff may have to go, that extra money does not go to executives (that is not how Allina works) it is someone’s salary as Allina is getting paid less for services. Reality of healthcare today,

    Andrej,
    http://healthcareadministrator.org/salary/

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