Union employees at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center have authorized a potential one-day strike if a tentative agreement can’t be agreed upon during ongoing contract negotiations with the hospital.

Members also voted to reject management’s latest proposals. Representing 600 employees in virtually every profession except registered nurse at the largest employer of the Crosby-Ironton area, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota spokespeople said progress is being made — particularly in terms of wages — but the medical center is failing to adequately compensate workers in terms of benefits and retirement security provisions.

"I voted to strike because it is time that management shows that they value the people who work in the buildings as much as they value the fancy new facilities they keep building,” bargaining team member and phlebotomist Roseanne Mackenthun said in a statement. “We care for everyone who walks through our doors, but too many staff are struggling to care for our families.”

The two sides have met to hash out details seven times over the last three months, the latest being Monday, Oct. 14, and Mackenthun said the medical center and its employees remain divided on key issues.

More than 90% of members voted to reject the employer’s proposals and a majority voted to authorize a one-day strike if called by the bargaining committee. Mackenthun said a strike likely hinges on the result of a sit-down Oct. 28. As the union must give a 10-day notice for the strike, it would likely take place sometime in November if an agreement can’t be found.

In response, CRMC expressed disappointment in the escalation amid contract negotiations that have been productive in some areas.

In a statement, CRMC alleged SEIU Healthcare Minnesota is targeting its facility because of decertification efforts by some union staff and that union leadership has decided to use the threat of a strike as a divisive bargaining tactic.

“CRMC came to the bargaining table in good faith, has made multiple proposals that are comparable to how the union is settling contracts throughout the state, and is ready today to settle on a fair contract,” CEO Kyle Bauer stated in a release. “That does not appear to be the goal of the union.”

Bauer went on to characterize a potential strike as “devastating to patient care, morale and the bottom line.”

Mackenthun said CRMC was a nonprofit public entity until 2017, which means these negotiations mark the first chance the union will have to carve out a fully negotiated and transparent deal between the workers and management.

Describing the vote as a message to show management that employees are serious and unyielding in their demands, Mackenthun also noted the high vote percentage, 90%, should also serve to illustrate the resolve and urgency of worker demands.

“We expected it to be high, but not that high. Ninety percent is unreal. We had a record turnout,” Mackenthun said during a phone interview Tuesday, Oct. 15. “I think it did surprise management, the volume, but at the same time they moved a lot yesterday, but not enough. We’re not ready to say this is a good enough proposal to bring back to the employees.”

CRMC’s statement noted a strike authorization vote does not mean that a strike is imminent, although it does place the medical center in the position of having to spend thousands of dollars preparing for the threat of a strike.

While management offered wages more in line with local market standards present at Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd and Riverwood Healthcare Center in Aitkin, Mackenthun said benefits — particularly health care coverage — and retirement security provisions like pensions are both woefully substandard for employees.

“We feel we have great employees, value them and will continue to be transparent in our negotiations,” Bauer stated in the release.

Bauer added that annually CRMC benchmarks both wages and employee benefits and it feels strongly it offers a competitive package, including CRMC strong health and retirement plans available to all employees, including physicians, he said.

In terms of health care, Mackenthun said, the medical center primarily provides coverage in-house, which severely limits the employees in terms of access and care options. This also results in exorbitant premiums and deductibles — costs so high, she noted, that many employees are forced to lean on state-funded programs to get by.

“That is extremely unacceptable when you work in health care,” Mackenthun said. “When you can’t afford health care coverage for your kids and you qualify for state aid, that’s telling you something: that it’s not a priority for management. They feel their benefit package is ‘More than generous.’ That’s their exact words.

“It’s fine if you’re by yourself, but if you have a family and kids and you have such high premiums, then sometimes it’s a decision to eat or have medical,” she added.

This, Mackenthun said, from a hospital that’s “renowned” for the variety, comprehensiveness and quality of care and services it provides to patients and which has funded extensive additions and renovations to its facility.

The most recent contract ended Oct. 1, which means employees are also pushing for back pay and benefits once a new agreement is made, Mackenthun said, which so far has been another sticking point in negotiations.

In the end, Mackenthun said she hopes the threat of a strike is enough to compel management to make the necessary changes, while she said she also hoped the community would understand a difficult decision by health care professionals.

“As much as it would hurt all of our hearts, if we have to do a one-day strike, I think our patients would understand that we have families we have to support,” Mackenthun said. “Unlike the teachers’ strike that tore the community apart a number of years ago, I hope the community would understand this is a major employer in the area, but unfairly treating its employees.”