The Mayo Clinic locked out 79 hospital workers in Albert Lea Wednesday morning, one day after the group of nursing assistants, housekeepers, maintenance workers and others went on a one-day strike over stalled labor negotiations.

A spokesman for the worker's union, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, said its members were met at the doors of the Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea about 6 a.m. by hospital management and security and told they could not return until Dec. 26. The union claimed Wednesday's lockout was the first health care lockout ever in the state.

The hospital previously said it would hire replacement workers on a one-week contract if the strike took place. The only exceptions were for six maintenance workers, including those who operate the hospital boiler, who were allowed to return to their jobs Wednesday.

A Mayo Clinic spokeswoman said that union leaders knew workers would get locked out and shouldn't have been surprised by the move.

"SEIU leadership continues to put its own agenda ahead of the well-being of their members, our hardworking employees," said Mayo spokeswoman Ginger Plumbo.

She said that Mayo has been waiting since May for the union to return to negotiations.

A union spokesman maintained that both sides agreed in May to postpone negotiations while awaiting a labor law ruling.

The union claims it offered dates for bargaining to Mayo after the ruling was handed down, but that the hospital leadership didn't accept any of the dates.

Negotiators for Mayo and the locked-out workers now plan to meet Dec. 28.

Mayo has said one of the sticking points in negotiations is its offer to include union members in the same benefits package that nonunion members receive. The union has countered that the nonunion package comes with the understanding that it could always be amended by Mayo at the hospital's discretion.

"We call it a 'permanent waiver' of our bargaining rights," SEIU President Jamie Gulley said in a statement.

Using its own funds and money raised from supporters and other unions, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota plans to pay workers to make up any salary lost during the lockout, a union spokesman added.

The union will take its protest to Rochester on Thursday, with plans to picket from 2:30 to 4 p.m. at the building that houses Mayo headquarters.

Union supporters, including several gubernatorial candidates, spoke at a rally on Tuesday during the one-day strike and picket of Mayo's Albert Lea hospital.

The protest came as the Mayo Clinic fights a public relations battle with Albert Lea residents who have protested the hospital's plan to move most of its inpatient services to Austin, some 23 miles away.

The Mayo Clinic has said the cost savings measure was needed to stem steep financial losses. Albert Lea residents, meanwhile, have fought back with a tenacious grass-roots campaign with city and county support.

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329