ALBERT LEA — Amidst rising tensions in Albert Lea, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and Mayo Clinic have made dueling allegations of unfair labor practices.
SEIU leadership announced this morning that a one-day strike will be held outside Mayo Clinic Health System's Albert Lea campus. The Dec. 19 strike includes 79 SEIU members employed as certified nursing assistants, housekeepers, sterile processing staff and utilities and materials management workers.
That bargaining group voted to authorize the strike last month. They'll now be joined by six skilled maintenance workers who have been working without a contract for more than two years.
At issue is Mayo's insistence on including a clause that allows Mayo to change employee benefits without the union's approval. Mayo describes it as "standard contract language," common among other bargaining units, but SEIU has balked at accepting it.
SEIU has accused Mayo of unfair labor practices as the two sides have worked since 2015 to hammer out new contracts. The National Labor Relations Board recently sided with Mayo in the contract dispute, but SEIU President Jamie Gulley said he plans to file new complaints against Mayo in the near future.
"What frustrates me is that at the bargaining table we have been willing to give and give and give, and when it is Mayo's turn to compromise, they haven't given an inch," said SEIU member Marlene Baseman, who has been a housekeeper at the Albert Lea hospital for 27 years. "They seem to want to throw away all of what we have now. They offer us pennies and cut back at our hospital while we see them spending big bucks in other places."
Mayo spokeswoman Ginger Plumbo said this morning that Mayo hasn't yet received formal notice of SEIU's plans to strike, which legally requires a 10-day notice.
"It is unfortunate that the union would put out a press release prior to fulfilling their legal obligation," Plumbo said via email. "If in fact the union has decided to call a strike, it is regrettable that they would deliberately subject our hard-working employees to uncertainty, anxiety and lost wages at this time of year."
Plumbo says Mayo filed its first in history unfair labor practices complaint against SEIU last month, citing the union's "regressive labor bargaining tactics." Mayo's complaint was filed Nov. 28 with the National Labor Relations Board.
"It's rare for employers, and it's a first for us," Plumbo said.
The Post Bulletin has reviewed an internal email sent Nov. 17 by Mayo Clinic Health System — Austin and Albert Lea leadership to staff that expressed disappointment in SEIU's course of action. The email noted that the union hadn't requested a negotiating session since May. Mayo warned employees that participating in a one-day strike would create the need to hire contract workers for a minimum of one week.
"It is our intent to not compromise patient care in any way due to this decision (to authorize a strike)," MCHSAA CEO Mark Ciota wrote. "Striking employees are not paid for the time they are on strike and benefits may be discontinued during a strike. Striking employees may be replaced temporarily and in some instances permanently.
"Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea has historically had a positive relationship with the members of this Union, and it is our desire to maintain this relationship moving forward," the email said.
SEIU's news release announcing plans to strike noted that its members had "little choice but to stand up and fight back" after receiving Mayo's email. The union described it as "a threat to stop workers at the hospital from making their voices heard through their legally protected right to strike."
"It is very troubling that Mayo decided to causally threaten employees with a Christmas lockout," Gulley said. "I know working people, and the whole Albert Lea community, won't be intimidated by threats from Mayo executives.
"Over the last few years it has become crystal clear that Albert Lea workers, patients and community members are ready and willing to fight for good jobs and good healthcare in our community. It is time Mayo actually listens to families in Albert Lea instead of apparently only focusing on their bottom line while sitting in their executive suites."
The contractual debate is playing out while Mayo moves forward with consolidation plans that would shift most inpatient services from Albert Lea to Austin. The first step of that plan was taken in October over criticism from a number of elected officials at the city, county and state level.
On Tuesday, an independent health care consultant shared a 70-page report that said a full-service, acute-care hospital was feasible "under the right conditions." The consultant was hired for $75,000 by the city of Albert Lea, Freeborn County and Save Our Hospital.