Nearly 5,000 nurses employed by Allina Health began a seven-day strike Sunday morning, setting up picket lines outside five metro-area facilities.

The walkout is taking place at Unity, Abbott Northwestern and Phillips Eye Institute in Minneapolis, United Hospital in St. Paul, Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids and Unity Hospital in Fridley.

In downtown St. Paul, well over 200 nurses and their supporters blanketed the sidewalk outside United in red, the Minnesota Nurses Association’s official color. Picketers put up cheers as nurses finishing the night shift walked out of the facility and onto the strike line at 7 a.m.

“To see this many nurses on the outside, you know something is wrong on the inside,” United labor and delivery nurse Christine Hicks said.

Unlike the other metro area hospital systems, Allina did not settle a contract with nurses earlier this year. “They could have had labor peace like the other systems. They chose not to,” said Rose Roach, MNA executive director.

Nurses are standing together to defend their affordable, quality health insurance plans. Since contract talks began in February, Allina has refused to budge from its demand that nurses give up four union-sponsored insurance options and transition into “core” plans that cover most of Allina’s other employees.

“We hear a lot of our co-workers complaining about those plans,” United physical rehabilitation nurse Barbara Slagg said. “Some insurance plans seem cheaper until you actually access the care. Then you pay huge amounts out of pocket.”

Slagg, whose unit at the hospital has been shut down for the duration of the strike, said union negotiators have been unable to gain access to the information necessary to adequately compare Allina’s core plans to the MNA options. She also said Allina refused to bargain over nurses’ staffing and safety concerns “until we complied with their demand to give up our insurance.”

In response, the union filed charges of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations board. Under federal law, union members can engage in an unfair labor practice strike without fear of retaliation. The nurses’ employment is protected under federal law.

At Abbott Northwestern, Bernie Mertes of Lakeville said she has worked as a nurse at Abbott for only five months, fresh from graduating with her nursing degree from the Minnesota School of Business. When she left her floor minutes before, she said, “a physician and a patient both gave me a hug — and I cried. It was awful.”

In Fridley, Monica Proulx, a surgery nurse at Unity for more than 20 years, helped hold a large banner that read, “Allina Health Priorities: Money, Profits.”

Proulx said she was frustrated that Allina has refused to negotiate over issues such as patient care and reducing workplace violence unless the union capitulates on the health insurance issue.

“They [Allina] don’t want to talk about anything else,” she said. Standing with her was Mischelle Knipe, a member of the Unity negotiating committee. “Allina won’t even answer our staffing proposal,” Knipe said.

Unity, the smallest of the four hospitals in the strike, has closed units and turned away patients in preparation for the walkout. In addition, Allina reportedly has brought in 1,400 replacement nurses, many of them from out of state, to staff the five facilities.

Before walking off the job, nurses made full reports to their managers so that patient care could be transferred, the union said.

“We’re caregivers by nature,” said Robin Larson, one of the unit chairs at Unity. “We would rather be giving care to our patients.”

Nurses at all strike sites reported strong support from the community, including folks joining the picket line and dropping off food. In Fridley, a supporter offered a home across the street from the hospital to host picket sign-ups. In St. Paul, the new AFL-CIO labor center served as a headquarters.

Supporters joining the striking nurses at Abbott Northwestern included Minneapolis City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden and State Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis.

“I’m so mad,” said Clark, a former nurse and MNA member whose district includes Abbott. “I can’t believe nurses have to fight for their own healthcare.”

Supporters are welcome – and appreciated – on the picket line, according to the union. MNA has posted a sign-up form for picketers at allinastrike.com.

Nurses are also asking supporters to sign onto a petition asking to Allina to drop its efforts to shift $10 million in health care costs onto nurses and their families. The petition is online at this link.

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