ALBERT LEA, Minn. – Mayo employees picketed their hospital here Tuesday to draw attention to stalled labor talks — a move that Mayo officials dismissed as political grandstanding timed for the holidays.
The one-day strike at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea included about 80 maintenance and general workers who accused the hospital of cutting positions, threatening to take benefits, and refusing to negotiate.
"They want to take away our basic union rights," said Charlotte Nelson-Shocker, a 28-year employee who helps manage hospital supplies. Mayo hasn't replaced retiring workers in her department for at least two years, she said.
Members of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota began the one-day walkout Tuesday at 6 a.m., saying Mayo has threatened to lock out some of the striking workers for a week because of the need to hire temporary workers.
Mayo Clinic Health System says the facility will remain open during the strike. It says the union didn't even ask for a bargaining session until recently, and that a negotiation session has been scheduled for later this month.
The strike drew attention from political leaders across the state, including several gubernatorial candidates who rallied with the striking workers Tuesday morning. Gov. Mark Dayton and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, who chairs a corporate board overseeing Mayo's $5.6 billion Rochester expansion, issued statements that urged both sides to resolve the impasse, with Smith telling Mayo that locking out workers over the holidays is "unacceptable."
Striking worker Henry Tews, a boiler operator and plumber during his 28 years at the hospital, said he's gone nearly three years without a contract. Mayo's position has been inflexible, with their representatives saying, "This is what we'll give you. Take it or leave it," he said.
The strike opened a second public relations front for Mayo in Albert Lea, where the hospital has been in the public eye for months over plans to move most inpatient services to Austin, some 23 miles away. Emergency room and inpatient behavioral health care plus outpatient services will stay in Albert Lea.
The move comes amid a long-term reduction of health care in rural America due to rising costs and the difficulty of getting specialists to work there.
Mayo says it's a necessary cost-saving measure, but Albert Lea residents have fought back with a tenacious grass-roots campaign with city and county support.
The picketing workers on Tuesday included certified nursing assistants, housekeepers, workers who sterilize medical equipment and those in the maintenance trades. They voted last month to authorize the strike. Nelson-Shocker said she plans to return to the hospital Wednesday for her regular shift, but added she was required to turn in her badge Monday, and doesn't know if she'll be allowed in or if the hospital will enforce the seven-day lockout.
A spokeswoman for the Mayo Clinic said about 20 percent of the striking employees who were scheduled to work Tuesday crossed the picket line and reported to work.
The strike comes less than two weeks before negotiations were scheduled to resume this month between Mayo and the bulk of the striking workers, said Mayo spokeswoman Ginger Plumbo. "This is to influence their position at the bargaining table," she said.
Mayo has no plans to replace the workers, Plumbo said. She said the union objects to what she characterized as a generous benefits package that Mayo wants to give all of its workers.
"We very much value these employees," Plumbo said.
The picketing workers were joined for a midmorning rally by union leaders and several gubernatorial candidates including state Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. He told the workers that he wants to see the Legislature review their 2013 agreement to grant state funds to the Mayo Clinic for its $5.6 billion, 20-year expansion in Rochester.
The project, known as Destination Medical Center, includes about $585 million in public support, making it the state's largest economic development project. Mayo officials have said the expanded hospital will raise $2 billion or more in additional tax revenue.
Thissen said many legislators had "heartburn to begin with" when the legislation was passed, but now that Mayo employees are complaining of bad faith in contract negotiations, it might be time to change the law. Thissen insisted "it's realistic" to think that the Legislature would modify a law passed four years ago in full support of the state's cherished Mayo Clinic.
The path toward reopening that legislation would go through tax committee chair Greg Davids, R-Preston, who said Tuesday that it would be difficult to convince the Legislature to change the public financing for Destination Medical Center when the project has been a good deal for the public so far.