On Tuesday night, a number of Macalester students received an email from the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) with the subject line “Mac President Brian Rosenberg and the Nurse’s [sic] Strike.”
The MNA, which represents registered nurses in the state, is currently in the second week of a strike at five Twin Cities hospitals operated by Allina Health over proposed changes to nurses’ own health care plans.
The Macalester connection? Rosenberg is on Allina’s Board of Directors—and as a result of this association, the MNA has targeted him for a perceived lack of support.
MNA Communications Specialist Barb Brady told The Mac Weekly in an email that, “In correspondence with an alumnus of Macalester, he [Rosenberg] has stated that he hopes ‘both sides’ can come to an agreement, which makes it sound like he isn’t an important part of one of the sides.”
Brady continued, “We expect board members to take responsibility for the actions and words of the Allina negotiating team, and steer negotiations in a direction that acknowledges the importance of nurses and the service they provide to the community as health care providers.”
The MNA email urged Mac students to “tell Brian Rosenberg to stop hiding from his responsibility and to tell his fellow Board of Directors that it’s time to settle the strike,” and included Rosenberg’s phone number and email address. The email blast to Mac students also contained the line, “Rosenberg says that he doesn’t have anything to do with the strike.”
In an interview on Wednesday, Rosenberg disagreed. “I’ve never denied any involvement,” he said. “What I’ve said, and what is accurate, is that the Board doesn’t have primary responsibility for labor negotiations, we delegate that to management. As a board member, I have no ability to cause or end the strike.”
The Nurses’ Association strike began on Labor Day after the two sides failed to reach an agreement, with talks breaking down on September 3. In response, Allina has hired around 1,500 nurses on a temporary basis. Thousands of nurses, a majority of those registered with the MNA, have been involved with the strike. The hospitals affected are Abbott Northwestern and Phillips Eye Institute in Minneapolis, United Hospital in St. Paul, Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids and Unity Hospital in Fridley.
The MNA also went on strike for a week in June. During that time, the MNA asserts that Allina spent nearly $20 million to staff its hospitals with replacement nurses. In the MNA’s estimation, the proposed changes to the nurses’ health care plans will only save the company around $10 million annually.
It’s a bitter dispute. Rosenberg has been on Allina’s Board of Directors for three years, since getting to know the organization’s CEO through the Itasca Group, but his connections to the company run deep: Rosenberg’s wife is a physician in the Allina health care system who is directly affected by the proposed change in health care plans.
“I think that health care is really important,” Rosenberg said. “Allina is the largest health care provider in the state, and so if I have some opportunity in some way to contribute to that, I’ll do it.”
The email, and accompanying messages, aren’t the first instance of the Nurses’ Association trying to get through to Rosenberg. Last Wednesday, a number of strikers from the nurses’ union were at Macalester to organize and tried to hand-deliver a letter to Rosenberg. That effort was unsuccessful.
One student who helped organize the effort on Wednesday was Robert Lin ’17. Lin was made aware of the situation by a recent Macalester grad who is now involved with labor organizing in the Twin Cities.
“We spend a lot of time in classes intellectualizing these problems, and it’s an important step to realize that we’re very much tied to what’s going on,” Lin said. “This is our president. Mac is not separate from the real world.”
When asked if he was surprised by Rosenberg’s stance on the strike, Lin replied, “Not really. This is not the first time that he has been called out for being anti-union. He does have a history of not supporting people who are trying to unionize and express workers’ rights.” Lin is referring to a period in the spring of 2014, when Macalester adjunct professors and other non-tenured faculty were considering whether to unionize as a part of a broader national effort. Rosenberg opposed those efforts. The vote on unionization was eventually cancelled.
But Rosenberg pushed back against the assertion that he is anti-union.Rosenberg said, “I believe they [the MNA] have a right to strike…So I don’t disagree with their decision. I think that, as far as I can tell, the position taken by leadership is a reasonable one.”
The MNA also took issue with the salary Rosenberg draws from his position with Allina, writing, “So what does he do as an Allina Director and why does Allina pay him thousands of dollars a year to be a Director — even more than many hospital staff make?”
“I get a stipend of $10,000 per year, which I, like many board members, donate back to the hospitals,” Rosenberg said. “I consider service on that board as a form of civic service. It’s not something I do to make money.” “I’m not sure how they calculate $10,000 being more than many staff members make,” he continued. “I would suspect that’s not accurate. Given the work involved, that amount [his stipend] is pretty minimal—which is common for nonprofits.”
Brady said that the MNA has not had any relationship with Rosenberg in the past, and said that the group is, “reaching out to all of Allina’s Board members in our efforts to reach a fair contract.”
Lin confirmed that, and said that the MNA had made similar attempts to contact some or all of the other 15 board members at their places of work. Lin was not involved with, and did not receive, Tuesday night’s email—which, as far as is known, was only sent out to students and not faculty or staff.
There remains a question of mechanics. The email was highly unusual in that it was sent en masse from a large organization. How was the MNA able to send its message to Mac students?
“The email addresses are publicly available,” Brady said. However, only certain students received the message. That’s because, according to Associate Director for ITS David Sisk, all-student distribution lists — like the one used to send The Daily Piper — are “not open for other uses, and cannot be used by unauthorized individuals, on- or off-campus.”
Sisk’s best guess was that, “someone — I would guess a member of the nurse’s union — simply harvested Macalester email addresses and used MailChimp [an email marketing service] to send this out.”
When asked if the end of the strike is in sight, Rosenberg replied, “I literally have no idea. When we were briefed at the board meeting last week, we were given no sense of timetable, but just told that when these things end, they usually end suddenly.” The clock is ticking. According to Minnesota Public Radio, nurses on strike will lose their health insurance entirely on October 1.