Allina nurses ratify new contract, return to work

Allina Health nurses in the Minneapolis-St Paul area returned to work after ratifying a new collective bargaining agreement.

The ratification vote ended a five-week strike by the nurses.

The vote came two days after the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA)  and Allina reached a tentative agreement on October 11.

The two sides announced the agreement after a 17-hour negotiating session held in the home of Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton.

Gov. Dayton brought the two sides together and urged them to reach an agreement a week after nurses rejected a proposal Allina to end the strike.

“This contract represents compromise and strength by the nurses,” said Rose Roach, MNA’s executive director. “While it’s nowhere near what nurses deserve, they can hold their heads high. They can rest easy knowing they won a “no diminishment” clause, so even though they are moving to the corporate health insurance plans, they have assurance that the value of their benefits won’t be reduced in any future cost-cutting scheme.”

When contract talks began in February, Allina sought to shift nurses away from their low-cost, high-quality union sponsored health care plan and into its corporate plan.

Penny Wheeler, Allina’s CEO, said that doing so would save the company $10,000,000.

The savings would be generated by shifting health care costs from the company to the nurses.

The Kaiser Family Foundation compared the union’s two most popular plans with the company’s most popular plan.

Depending on which of the two union plans a nurse is enrolled, insurance pays either 91 percent and 96 percent of the yearly costs that a typical person would incur. Under the corporate plan, a typical person pays 87 percent of the yearly costs.

Before the strike began, nurses agreed to the shift but wanted it done gradually and wanted Allina to compensate them for the money they would lose when they shifted to the corporate plan.

The final agreement, which is similar to the agreement that nurses rejected a week earlier, gives nurses five years to shift their health care coverage to the corporate plan.

When they do so, Allina will contribute money to a health reimbursement or savings account.

The company also agreed that during this time, corporate plan benefits will not be diminished.

There were other issues that led to the strike. Concerns about under staffing were just as important to the nurses as their health care plan.

Nurses argued that staffing shortages were putting the health and lives of their patients as risk. They wanted the company to agree to safe nurse to patient staffing ratios.

The ratified agreement takes some small steps toward addressing the under staffing problem.

Under terms of the new agreement, Allina agreed to examine the conditions under which charge nurses are assigned a patient load.

Charge nurses are registered nurses who perform supervisory work. They oversee admissions and discharges, assign duties to other nurses and staff, assist other nurses and staff, and perform administrative tasks such as ordering and monitoring prescription medicine.

Charge nurses usually care for patients too.

Nurses are hoping that a closer examination of how charge nurses are assigned patient care will lead to more appropriate nurse to patient ratios for all nurses.

“The nurses sacrificed their livelihoods and their families’ security to win improvements to patient care through a staffing procedure that will examine and review the impact of charge nurses having patient assignments,”said Mary Turner, MNA’s president and an RN at Allina’s North Memorial Medical Center. “The issue of safe staffing is far greater than one job classification, which is why nurses focused from day one on negotiating staffing ratios.”

The new contract also includes safety improvements. For example, Allina agreed to hire security guards that would be present in its emergency rooms around the clock.

While the nurses voted to end the strike, they remain wary of Allina and its motives.

“To Allina we say: as a member-run union, the nurses make the decisions (about ending the strike),” said Roach. “Rest assured, this isn’t the last time you will hear nurses speak out. The wounds inflicted on the nurses since February will not heal overnight. Nurses have continually felt disrespected and devalued. Nurses are determined to keep speaking up for their patients and their profession as they return to the bedside. I hope Allina will listen and work to re-establish trust with the nurses and ensure maximum patient safety and care.”


Government orders striking workers in Iceland back to work

Nurses at the Laudspitali National University Hospital in Reykjavik, Iceland began resigning en masse after the government passed legislation on June 12 ordering them back to work without a new contract.

Thousands of supporters of the nurses and other striking workers disrupted Iceland’s National Day celebrations on June 17 with angry demonstrations denouncing the government’s strike breaking actions.

The nurses’ strike began on May 27 after negotiations between the nurses’ union and the national government failed to produce a new labor agreement after the old one expired.

About 1,600 nurses who belong to the Icelandic Nurses Association walked off the job. Another 500 remained on the job to provide emergency services and ensure patient safety.

Before the nurses went on strike, other health care workers in the country had been on strike.

During the last two months, Iceland has been rocked by a number of strikes by all kinds of workers.

In April,  3,000 university workers including professors, graduate students, and research scientist went on and remain on strike.

They have been joined by midwives, x-ray technicians, and veternarians.

On May 28 and 29, workers in the commercial fishing and tourism industry industries, two of the country’s most important economic sectors, conducted limited strike actions.

Industrial workers planned to go on strike on June 6, but that strike has been postponed until June 22 as negotiations between the workers’ unions and the association of businesses continue.

Like the nurses, the other strikers are demanding higher wages.

According to Grapevine, an alternative English-language magazine published and based in Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, there is an across the board wage crisis in Iceland.

“Even people earning above median wages have trouble paying basic bills,” reports Grapevine.

It wasn’t always like this in Iceland.

Like its wealthier Scandinavian neighbors, Iceland had a social democratic economy that produced widespread income security.

That began to change in the early 1990s when the government introduced market-friendly policies that began to erode the country’s social democratic principles.

At first, the market was good to Iceland, and prosperity reigned.

But in 2008 the country’s deregulated banking industry collapsed when the worldwide financial crisis hit home.

The entire country struggled, but those who earned their living through work bore the brunt of the crisis.

During the years that followed, wages dropped or were stagnant.

After a long wait, a recovery finally started to take root, but only a few reaped the benefits.

Grapevine reports that while Icelandic workers’ pay is generally lower than their counterparts in other Scandinavian countries, executive pay in Iceland is 5 percent higher.

While workers in the fishing industry were trying to get a decent pay raise to make up for lost ground since 2008, the fishing corporation HB Grandi gave its board members 33 percent increase in annual compensation,

An insurance company VIS went even further and gave its board members a 70 percent increase, which set off a public furor that forced the company to scale back the raise.

The wealthy and corporations have also received generous tax cuts while taxes on food and co pays for health care have increased.

“It seems as if there is more than enough money when it comes to raising wages for executives and people in the highest income brackets,” said Drifa Snaedal, leader of the Federation of General and Special Workers, a federation of 19 unions in the private and public sectors, to Grapevine. “But when workers ask for a living wage, all of a sudden times are really tough and everyone needs to tighten their belts so that we don’t threaten economic stability.”

The government’s strike breaking action affected other striking health care workers as well as the nurses, and it sparked an angry response from unions representing both sets of workers.

“The government is legislating a wage dispute it itself is party to,” which violates the constitutionally protected rights of labor unions, read a statement issued by the nurses’ union and BHM a labor federation whose members include other health care workers on strike.

BHM said that it planned to take legal action against the government.

The new law orders the striking workers back to work until July 1. During that time negotiations between the two sides will continue. If the government and workers’ unions can’t reach an agreement the dispute may be settled by an arbitrator.

There is concern that the government’s new law will set a precedent for other negotiations involving other public sector unions.

The new law appears to bar other public sector unions from striking, said Lára V. Júlíusdóttir, law professor at the University of Iceland, to Iceland Review.

If that is the case, Iceland’s workers may find that strikes–the most effective tool they have to close the growing wage gap between workers and their bosses–will no longer be recognized as legal.