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Contract talks between nurses, Sanford kick off in Bemidji

About 50 people gathered at the Sanford Center on Thursday morning to show support for nurses as contract negotiations started between Sanford Health Bemidji and nurses at the hospital. (Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI, Minn. — Negotiating teams representing Sanford Health Bemidji and registered nurses in the Minnesota Nurses Association union headed into the Sanford Center on Thursday morning to begin the first official round of negotiations on a new contract for the roughly 280 RNs who staff the Bemidji facility.

Brian Mathews, human resources director for Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota and media spokesman during the negotiations, was confident a new contract could be ironed out before the current one expires Feb. 28.

“We’re very pleased that we’re starting well prior to Feb. 28,” he said Wednesday. “We’re optimistic that we can reach a fair agreement prior to the expiration of the current contract.”

Previous contract negotiations in 2011 saw major conflict between Sanford and the union, including “informational picketing” by the nurses. It was more than six months from the time the contract expired until a tentative agreement was reached.

Mathews said that generally during contract negotiations, if talks go past the existing contract’s expiration date, both sides continue to follow the terms of that contract until a new one is agreed upon.

Peter Danielson, registered nurse at Sanford Bemidji and co-chair of the union negotiating team, said through a spokesperson that fair pay, health insurance benefits and staffing levels are all issues important to the nurses during negotiations.

“(They) are looking for a contract that compensates them fairly for the long shifts they work and all their efforts to care for patients. (The n)urses want a benefits package that ensures that they can also be healthy and productive and that keeps quality nurses at Sanford.” he said in an email. “(They) also need to be able to use their professional judgment and take measures that ensure enough nurses are on staff to deliver quality care for patients.”

About 50 union nurses and supporters gathered outside the Sanford Center on Thursday morning to show support for their negotiating team as they entered the building.

Negotiations began at 9 a.m. and ended at about 4:30 p.m., slightly earlier than expected. Each side put forward its new contract proposal Thursday.

Spokespeople for both sides declined to talk about how their proposals differed from the existing contract. However, Mathews said the talks went well.

“We exchanged proposals and had a very positive, constructive discussion of those proposals,” he said Thursday evening. “I think that each side walked away feeling very comfortable it understood the other side’s proposal.”

The next official negotiation meeting is scheduled in December. However, union spokesman Rick Fuentes said the official meetings are only a portion of the negotiating process.

“A lot of work in this process actually happens away from the negotiating table,” he said.