Striking nurses opened a new front against Allina Health Tuesday, with a morning rally that snarled rush hour traffic in downtown Minneapolis for more than an hour, even as negotiators for the two parties returned to the bargaining table for talks that lasted into the night.

The bargaining session, arranged by a federal mediator, was the first since the nurses’ strike began on Labor Day. The main point of contention was the differing positions on health insurance plans.

At about 11 p.m., the two sides mutually agreed to adjourn for the night and said they will continue discussions Wednesday morning.

The morning rally was held outside the Radisson Blu Hotel downtown during the annual shareholders meeting of General Mills, which has an executive serving on the board of Allina Health. The Minnesota Nurses Association said Executive Vice President John Church is the latest in a series of General Mills executives who have served on the Allina board over the past two decades and sought to query him on the labor dispute.

The protest disrupted traffic on S. 7th Street, just east of Hennepin Avenue, in front of the hotel, starting at about 8 a.m. Metro Transit rerouted buses late in the morning commute and police moved in quickly to clear traffic lanes. E-mail notices to bus riders starting about 9:10 a.m. indicated that the routes were resuming service along 7th Street. About that time, nurses were moved under the hotel sign while singing “We Are Family.” Moments later, the nurses boarded chartered buses heading back to the hospitals where they have been picketing.

Police spokeswoman Sgt. Catherine Michal said the 250 or so participants were “cooperative” and no arrests were made.

Three nurses made it inside the shareholders’ meeting with proxy tickets, stayed for the entire 45 minutes and received expressions of support from some attendees afterward, said Angela Becchetti, a registered nurse at Abbott Northwestern and part of the union’s negotiating committee.

Nurses who got inside asked a few questions concerning security and whether the costs incurred by the protest were bad for General Mills’ business. They were discouraged from asking more during the Q&A session and received non-answers, Becchetti said. The uninvited nurses were not sure whether Church was in attendance.

“We sent him multiple invitations to come talk to us,” she said, “and he still is not responding.”

General Mills CEO Ken Powell responded by saying that he “doesn’t pretend to fully understand” what’s happening with Allina right now, she added.

General Mills spokeswoman Bridget Christenson said the nurses asked “a few questions unrelated to General Mills, and we didn’t have anything to add.”

Christenson added that the company has “many executives who sit on nonprofit and corporate boards, independently of their roles at General Mills. We encourage our leaders to serve the community by donating their time and leadership expertise.”

With many nurses in the union’s trademark red garb outside the hotel, the boisterous rally was led by one participant with a pompon sparking a middle-of-the-street cheer.

“Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are,” started the call-and-response chant that bellowed around the tall buildings on the crisp early fall morning.

Allina Health’s 4,800 hospital nurses are in the fourth week of a strike triggered chiefly over the cost of health insurance benefits.

The Minnesota Nurses Association represents nurses on strike at five hospitals: Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis, United in St. Paul, Mercy in Coon Rapids, Unity in Fridley and the Phillips Eye Institute in Minneapolis.

 

Star Tribune staff writer Kristen Painter contributed to this report.