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Picketers accuse Mayo Clinic of "race to the bottom" in contract negotiations

pickets at mayo.jpg
Maintenance workers and community supporters held an informational picket outside Mayo Clinic Health System Albert Lea Hospital on Monday. The union has been in contract negotiations with Mayo over the past three months with the next session scheduled for Monday, November 23.

ALBERT LEA — Mayo Clinic employees across the region are closely watching contract negotiations in Albert Lea, where more than 100 picketers showed up Monday afternoon to protest language that some feel could set a precedent that negatively impacts workers and host communities.

Eight maintenance workers have gone through six bargaining sessions over the past three months while trying to finalize a new contract with Mayo Clinic. While most of the issues have been worked out, the sticking point with SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, a union that represents more than 60,000 across the state, appears to be Mayo Clinic's insistence that it be allowed to change employee benefits at will during the contract period.

"I'm afraid if we don't fight back as a community against the hospital's proposal to take away the voice of longtime community members who work at our hospital, it will mean that in the future this will no longer be a 'career' job that supports a family and allows someone to make Albert Lea their home," said Kavin Dressen, a chief engineer who has worked at the Mayo Clinic hospital in Albert Lea since 1989.

"We should be fighting for more jobs that reward hard work, not proposing language that could lead to a race to the bottom."

The picket was held outside the Albert Lea hospital for 90 minutes Monday afternoon, drawing a crowd of more than 100 in the rain and cold. The maintenance workers were supported by the local teachers union, according to a source.

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A press release from SEIU Healthcare Minnesota says that the maintenance workers in Albert Lea are the first union unit to engage in this round of bargaining with Mayo Clinic, with other expected to begin shortly across the region.

While some feel the result in Albert Lea could serve as a litmus test for those future negotiations, Mayo Clinic says that the disputed language is already in place for other unions' members, including many in Austin and Albert Lea.

"This group is being offered the same Mayo Clinic benefits package that is enjoyed by virtually all other Allied Health employees, which we strongly believe is better as a whole than the benefits they currently receive," said Mayo Clinic spokeswoman Tami Yokiel. "SEIU is opposing language that would allow the medical center to make changes to the benefits during the contract period. This language has already been accepted by several other union groups in Albert Lea and Austin, and also applies to all non-union employees.

The next bargaining session is scheduled for Monday. Both sides expressed hope that an agreement can be quickly reached, but the lines in the sand have been clearly drawn.

"We are optimistic we will reach a contract agreement acceptable to all parties and will continue working hard toward that end," Yokiel said. "We are committed to ensuing our patients receive the safest and highest quality health care."

Henry Tews, a maintenance engineer at the Albert Lea hospital, says he picketed Monday for "the future of the hospital."

"We can choose fairness that keeps our hospital and our communities strong, or we can choose a profit-driven race to the bottom that risks moving Albert Lea Hospital backwards for workers, and in turn for patients and our community," said Tews, who has spent the last 26 years at the hospital.

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