Albert Lea hospital workers stand up to Mayo with historic one-day strike

ALBERT LEA – Minnesota’s largest hospital system has picked a fight with two of its smallest bargaining units, but union members at the Mayo Clinic Albert Lea hospital aren’t backing down in their fight for job security and quality rural health care.

Workers aren’t standing alone against the health care Goliath, either.

Nursing assistants, housekeepers, maintenance staff and other frontline workers at the Albert Lea hospital staged the first-ever strike at a Mayo Clinic facility today. Their picket line swelled with community supporters, members of other unions and elected officials.

“We are out on strike today because it is insulting that Mayo has treated us and our community this way,” said Sheri Wichmann, an employee in the facility’s sterile processing unit. “We hope this will make Mayo realize they need to come to the table and negotiate in good faith.”

Striking workers are members of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, which represents two Albert Lea bargaining units in negotiations with Mayo. The one-day strike pulled together members of both units, 85 workers in all.

Picket lines went up at 6 a.m. and were scheduled to come down at 6 p.m. The strike, called in response to alleged unfair labor practices, is a legally protected action, and workers hoped to return to their jobs tomorrow, though Mayo has threatened to lock them out for six more days.

That kind of bullying typifies Mayo’s approach to contract negotiations in Albert Lea, striking workers said. Perry Jensen, a utility worker with 20 years of experience at the hospital, called it “my way or the highway.”

“It’s hard to feel valued or appreciated with what they are offering us and what they are proposing to take away,” said Jensen. “It feels like there isn’t the concern for us as employees and community members like there used to be. They won’t budge at all and want to force us to take what they want without sitting down and bargaining. It is a slap in the face.”

Jensen and other workers want protections for local jobs and contract language to prevent further erosion of rural health care in southern Minnesota. Workers have reason to be wary of potential outsourcing at Mayo, which last year handed over its food service operations to a subcontractor from Atlanta.

Mayo negotiators, meanwhile, want to strip workers of their right to “negotiate over pensions, over benefits, over disability plans, over paid time off,” SEIU Healthcare Minnesota President Jamie Gulley said.

 

At picket-line rallies throughout the day, speakers decried an increasingly corporate feel in Mayo’s expanding network.

State Rep. Tina Liebling, whose district includes Mayo’s headquarters in Rochester, said the hospital’s nonprofit status should mean more than an exemption from paying taxes. “Mayo needs to understand that … it has to be about the people that it serves, and that includes the people who work for it, who give Mayo its soul,” she said.

Others renewed concerns about the dwindling number of services Mayo offers in Albert Lea – and at other hospitals and clinics across southern Minnesota. State Rep. Paul Thissen said it’s worth revisiting the statute that provides state funding for Rochester’s $6.5 billion Destination Medical Center “to make sure Mayo’s obligations to the people of Minnesota are spelled out clearly.”

Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, added: “I’m very concerned about the people of Albert Lea come winter when the services that they need are not here, and they’re supposed to get on a freeway that they’ve just put the gates across because of a blizzard.”

Turner also presented striking workers with a $10,000 check for their hardship fund. “We may not always say it, but you guys are the right arm of the nurses,” she told striking workers. “We appreciate you 100 percent.”

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