Twin Cities hospitals say they're ready to go back to the bargaining table with the Minnesota Nurses Association -- but only if the union agrees not to strike until at least July 31.

The union had no immediate response Thursday to the hospitals' offer, which came two days after the nurses asked to resume talks.

But labor relations specialist John Budd thought it was telling that the two sides were still debating whether to meet again.

"It indicates how far apart the parties are," said Budd, a professor at the University of Minnesota. "They're now negotiating over negotiating."

The two sides have been in a highly charged standoff since contract talks broke down on June 4, and nurses staged a one-day walkout on June 10.

The nurses are scheduled to vote Monday on whether to authorize an open-ended strike.

"This may be the last opportunity to avoid a lengthy strike," the hospital group, representing 14 Twin Cities hospitals, said in a statement Thursday.

The hospitals called on the nurses to postpone any strike until at least July 31 and in return promised not to engage in a lockout of union members.

"We are pleased that the union wants to return to the table," the statement said, noting the union has said publicly that it's prepared to modify or drop proposals to reach a settlement. At the same time, the statement said, "it is important that these negotiations be conducted in an environment that can produce a successful resolution."

The two sides have clashed over working conditions, pensions, benefits and wage proposals. The union says its core issue is a proposal for formal nurse-to-patient staffing ratios that, it says, would improve patient care and hospital safety. The hospitals say that in a time of economic pressure on health providers, they need more flexibility in nurse staffing.

The hospitals also sent e-mails directly to nurses and other employees, explaining their offer.

While the union withheld comment on Thursday, some members let loose on its Facebook page.

"For me it's strike for a reasonable offer or quit," wrote one.

"I find the letter sent out today laughable ... only a time-buying tactic," wrote another.

The hospitals' offer is unlikely to derail the nurses' strike authorization vote next week, said Aaron Sojourner, who teaches labor relations at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

"I think they will definitely go through with the vote," he said, "and I think they will get strong support from members to get an open-ended strike."

Budd, who also teaches at the management school, said both sides may have to scale back their public feud if they want to make progress.

"If I was a mediator or something, I would be trying to get them to sort of tone it down publicly," he said. "I think [it] can just harden the positions and increase the emotions at stake."

Staff writer Chen May Yee contributed to this story. Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384