Labor professor discusses the nurses-hospitals settlementby Tom Crann, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — After months of talks, an agreement has been announced between the Minnesota Nurses Association and 14 Twin Cities hospitals.
The deal averts an open-ended strike by 12,000 union nurses who had planned to walk out Tuesday unless the two sides reached an agreement.
MPR's Tom Crann discussed the contract deal with John Remington, a professor of human resources and labor studies at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.
Tom Crann: Was there a clear winner or loser in today's agreement?
John Remington: I don't think there's any clear winner. I think it's a good agreement, a compromise agreement, not what either party would want, but I think it's a fair resolution of the dispute.
Crann: Who compromised more? Is it possible to say that?
Remington: Well, it's hard to say. Certainly, the union compromised on one of their major issues.
Crann: What would that be?
Remington: They had gone into the negotiations asking for a firm agreement on a staffing ratio. They didn't get that. What they got in exchange was a committee on the part of the employer to a future action, and that is to study that issue and to attempt to reach a resolution during the term of this agreement.
It's what we call a commitment to future action. It's a foot in the door, as they would say in collective bargaining. Hopefully they'll be able to resolve it within the terms of this current agreement. If not, it will come back again in three years.
Crann: When there is an agreement like this in collective bargaining, an agreement to look into something, how binding is that? Could they just keep putting it off?
Remington: It depends on the good faith of the parties. If both of them made this agreement in good faith, then they will attempt to make some progress on it. It's not a commitment to any specific goal, but it's a commitment to the process. And that's still important.
Crann: Does it surprise you that there's an agreement today when earlier in the week we've been hearing that things just broke down?
Remington: I think that the employer had made a preliminary proposal, which the union rejected, but I think it was a sounding board to sense where there may be some area for agreement. Apparently, the employer came back with another offer which said, 'We'll secure the pension. We'll secure the benefit levels. We will provide a minimal but, certainly in this economy, a reasonable wage increase."
In an era where employees are taking pay cuts, it's an agreement that has no increase, which also means no cuts, in the first year, and increases of one and two percent in future years. I think that's a pretty good agreement from the perspective of the nurses.
Crann: So, the nurses made the patient ratios a major sticking point here.
Remington: That was their major issue, and they were concerned that this is a safety issue and that patients were not safe. And the underlying issue was that the nurses were being sped up. They were being overworked.
Crann: Because they made that such a public issue, how does this look for them that they have actually conceded on this, to only future discussion and looking into, rather than actual ratios?
Remington: It's not a capitulation. It is less than they asked for, but what's important is there's a recognition on the part of the employer that this is an issue. And for the employer to say, 'Yeah, we're going to continue to look at this. We will make an effort to try to resolve this," is an admission that it is a problem.
Crann: Thank you, Professor Remington, for your perspective on this today. I appreciate it.
Remington: You're very welcome, Tom.
(Interview edited by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran.)