Twin Cities nurses and hospitals turned their bitter labor standoff into a surprise settlement Thursday, concluding a suspense-filled day of secret talks and averting the biggest nursing strike in U.S. history.

The 3 p.m. announcement stunned many members of the Minnesota Nurses Association, who had been bracing for a strike Tuesday. Instead of striking, they'll be voting on the agreement that day. At 1 a.m. Wednesday, the two sides had grimly broken off negotiations and announced that there was "no reason to talk." But by 11 p.m., they had quietly returned to the bargaining table and hammered out a tentative agreement, which was formally endorsed by the union leadership Thursday.

As part of the agreement, the union gave up what it had called its central demand -- mandatory nurse-to-patient staffing ratios. It agreed instead to work on staffing concerns through existing hospital committees. The union also accepted the hospitals' pay offer: no wage increase the first year, then 1 and 2 percent increases in the next two years.

In exchange, the hospitals dropped their proposed cuts to nurse pensions and changes in health insurance and other benefits. The union told members that its negotiators had successfully fought off "all the hospitals' takebacks and concessions."

"I know it's not everything I hoped for in a contract," Cindy Olson, a member of the nurses' bargaining committee, said at news conference at union headquarters. "But they haven't gutted my profession either."

Olson, a nurse at St. John's Hospital in Maplewood, added: "When you go on strike nobody wins."

The agreement must be ratified by a majority of voting members, the union said.

"It's a win for both sides -- the fact that they figured out how to continue doing their jobs for the people of the Twin Cities," said Aaron Sojourner, who teaches labor relations at the University of Minnesota. "They realized that coming to terms is better than going on strike."

Dr. David Abelson, chief executive of Methodist Hospital, said he was grateful for the settlement. "At the same time, I'm mindful that we need to heal and move forward," he said.

Abelson and others said there were tears of joy and a palpable sense of relief on hospital floors Thursday as word of the settlement spread.

'Emotional for all of us'

"We're just ecstatic," Jodi Bewell, a registered nurse at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, said minutes after seeing the news on the nurse's website. "We're all relieved. Nobody wants to go on strike, but the nurses weren't going to accept what [management] wanted to take away. We're all very happy."

"I called all the nursing units and they are all in tears, rejoicing," said Dana Kuss, another Abbott nurse, who was not working Thursday. They're "talking about a big party with management and everyone to repair the relationships."

Cindy Young left the hospital with the empty tote bag she had brought to clear out her locker before the strike. "No one really wanted to go on strike," she said. "This has all been very emotional for all of us." In the hospital, Young said, everyone was hugging one another -- nurses, doctors, managers. "We're all happy that things can go back to normal," she said.

Meanwhile, nurses lit up the union's Facebook site with stunned reactions.

"OMG!! our prayers have been answered. thank you everyone!!!!" wrote one.

Some, however, were clearly disappointed. "We have not made gains folks!" wrote another. "I would consider this a loss -- no patient ratios, no raise, and I get to keep what I already worked for?"

Added a third: "You guys CAVED! I am voting NO...we can now look like the greedy nurses we were portrayed as -- not really in it for patient safety at all..."

The two sides had been at a virtual standoff for months, and judging from their public statements, they seemed no closer to an agreement following a 13-hour negotiating marathon that ended about 1 a.m. Wednesday.

Late in those talks, the hospitals briefly offered some compromise language on pensions and staffing, but withdrew it when the union refused their two conditions: to suspend the strike deadline and to recommend the offer to union members. At that point, the two sides agreed on just one thing, said Maureen Schriner, the hospital spokeswoman. "We said why would we meet [again], because we don't have anything to talk about."

Within hours, however, a federal mediator called both sides and asked them to return to the table, Schriner said. The exact accounts differ, but three negotiators from each side started meeting at mediation headquarters about 4 p.m. and had an agreement by 11 p.m. But both sides kept it secret until the union's full bargaining committee had a chance to discuss it.

Issues expected to resurface

On Thursday, some 60 members of the union's bargaining teams met from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., debating the agreement.

"We had to work through our emotions," said Olson. Then they notified the hospitals that they would recommend it for ratification, and the two sides released a joint statement: "The registered nurses and the hospitals believe a settlement of the labor agreement at this time is in the best interests of patients and our community."

The union also agreed to drop a series of unfair-labor practice charges that it had filed against the hospitals during the contentious negotiations.

The real winners will be Twin Cities patients, because a strike was averted, said Maureen Swan, a health care consultant with MedTrend Inc. But she said the nurses lost some of their credibility by claiming that hospitals were unsafe and needed rigid staffing ratios. "Once the facts were clear that Minnesota hospitals are safe and our nurses are highly paid, the public just didn't buy the story nurses were selling," she said.

Others say the debate isn't over. "Certainly the union didn't get what they wanted in staffing but they raised public awareness about it," said the university's Sojourner. "I would expect the issue's not going away. I expect the nurses will continue to push for it. It will be an issue in three years."

The affected hospitals are Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Bethesda Hospital, Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, Fairview Southdale Hospital, Mercy Hospital, North Memorial Medical Center, Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital, Phillips Eye Institute, St. John's Hospital, St. Joseph's Hospital, United Hospital, Unity Hospital and the Riverside campus of University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview.

Staff writers Chen May Yee, Josephine Marcotty and Mary Lynn Smith contributed to this report. Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384