Contract talks between nurses and six Twin Cities hospital systems are starting this week, with initial proposals showing a clash between the hospitals’ desire for staffing flexibility and the union’s goal of protecting members against being overworked or hurt on the job.

Leaders on both sides expressed optimism that they could reach new three-year contracts and avoid the labor strife that occurred in 2016, when nurses twice went on strike against Allina Health and its Twin Cities hospitals.

“Nurses are united in putting forth proposals that recognize the value of their care and their professional judgment to protect patients,” said Jordan Foerster, a nurse at Fairview Health and a negotiator for the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA).

Negotiations between Fairview and the MNA started Tuesday, while talks are scheduled to start Wednesday for the Allina, Children’s and HealthEast hospital systems as well as Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park.

Talks between the nurses and North Memorial Health will start Friday.

A Fairview spokesman said in a statement that, “We believe we’ll successfully reach agreement on a new contract that is fair and reasonable for the nurses, the hospitals, and the community.”

Five of the hospital systems — all but Allina — had offered to maintain existing contract language and just negotiate wages. The nurses declined, MNA officials said, because they want to seek revisions that protect them from being overworked, assigned too many patients, or physically assaulted.

Nurses are mindful of a 2014 incident in which a patient ran through St. John’s Hospital in Maplewood, beating nurses with a metal rod, and then died after being restrained by police.

Union officials said assaults are a daily risk, and that data they requested from Allina showed 3,000 violent incidents against nurses in that health system alone in 2018.

“We’re asking hospitals to track and report violent incidents with front-line staff to help create prevention plans to protect nurses and patients,” said Emily Sippola, a nurse at Allina’s United Hospital in St. Paul and a negotiator.

Progress of talks between Allina and its nurses will be closely watched because of their contract battle in 2016, when the health system’s nurses twice went on strike. Health insurance was the overriding issue that prompted more than 4,000 Allina nurses to walk out for seven days in June that year and another 37 days that fall.

The fate of the nurse pension plan was another key issue three years ago, but Allina announced this fall that it would not seek changes to the plan this year, said Mandy Richards, the health system’s chief nursing officer.

Allina wants to remove “clunky” contract language that makes it harder for nurses to transfer to other hospitals or to work in other units or pick up extra shifts, Richards said. Allina’s Mercy and Unity hospitals in the North Metro are operated under a single license now, for example, so leaders want to make it easier for a nurse at one facility to cover a shift at the other.

Patients would benefit, she added. “For patients, they just want to make sure their care needs are being met, and are being met with the right staff at the right time.”

The opening Fairview talks Tuesday morning mostly involved a review of the two sides’ proposals. Foerster said last-minute calls to nurses to cover shifts have been problematic, and that the union is requesting bonuses for nurses who are called to work in less than 24 hours.

Hospitals might staff up to avoid paying those bonuses, she said. “We get called and texted constantly — multiple texts per day that they are short and need help.”