BMC asks federal court to block nurses strike

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PITTSFIELD — Berkshire Medical Center wants a federal judge to block next week's planned one-day strike by registered nurses, arguing their contract requires them to talk, not walk.

In a filing Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Boston, the hospital claims the notice submitted Sept. 22 by the union cites "unfair labor practices" as the reason for the strike.

Under the terms of their contract, complaints related to unfair labor practices must be handled through the grievance and arbitration process, said John Rogers, a vice president and general counsel for Berkshire Health Systems.

The case was assigned to the court's Springfield venue, where an attorney for BMC will argue as soon as Friday that Judge Mark G. Mastroianni should issue an injunction preventing the start of the job action Tuesday.

Joe Markman, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said Wednesday evening the union had not be served with court papers and maintains that its strike would be legal.

The legal challenge by the hospital comes as its leaders continue to plan for a strike, which is scheduled to begin at 7 a.m. Tuesday in three locations: the medical center in Pittsfield, Hillcrest Cancer Center in Pittsfield and the BMC campus in North Adams.

Though the union called a one-day strike, the hospital plans to provide replacement nurses for five days, saying that is its only option.

The hospital reached for relief from the court on another day of contract negotiations in search of a new pact governing the work of roughly 800 registered nurses.

Talks did not result in a breakthrough that would avert a strike, according to the union, which filed another unfair labor practices complaint at the end of the day.

The latest filing with the National Labor Relations Board in Boston joins three other such complaints from the union during the present talks. The hospital has also filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the union.

In its latest filing, the union said the hospital "has consistently refused to bargain or attempt to come to any agreement in relation to the mandatory subjects of staffing and workload."

The union has made demands for additional staffing a centerpiece of campaigns in Pittsfield and in other hospitals. Nurses represented by the same union held short strikes in Greenfield and Boston this year on similar issues.

Court filing

In its filing with the court, the hospital argues that because the union linked its job action to unfair labor practices, rather than to specific economic issues, it must seek to resolve the issues over a bargaining table, not by striking.

In a statement Wednesday, the union refers to the planned Tuesday strike as a "one-day unfair labor practice strike."

Rogers, the hospital's general counsel, said that while the union has pressed on a variety of economic issues during a year of negotiations, including wages, benefits and working conditions, those were not the matters cited in the strike notice.

"They're two different kinds of strikes, with different implications to them," Rogers said.

"It was a new twist from the MNA to describe its motivation as being about unfair labor practices," he said.

Though the union terminated its existing contract as of Sept. 1, it had filed three unfair labor practices complaints during the summer, when the former contract remained in effect.

Though the contract is now terminated, registered nurses continue to work under most of its provisions, including wages, and the employer cannot make wholesale changes in work rules, Rogers said.

The hospital will be represented at the Springfield hearing by David M. Mandel, an attorney with the Boston firm Ropes & Gray LLP. Rogers is also expected to be present. He said he is hopeful the court will respond to the filing before Tuesday's strike.

The civil action by the hospital names the Massachusetts Nurses Association as a defendant, along with Julie Pinkham, the union's executive director, and staff members Dana Simon, Roland Goff and Rudy Renaud.

Preparations continue

Meantime, both the union and hospital are taking steps to prepare for next week's events.

Michael Leary, the hospital's spokesman, said plans are still being set. "We are absolutely continuing our preparations," he said Wednesday.

The hospital says that with replacement nurses, it will "remain open and fully accessible to our patients and our community."

The union says it plans several events in the coming week related to the strike. On Monday, from 6 to 8 p.m., it will stage a "patient safety vigil" outside the medical center on North Street.

The hospital plans a press conference Monday, when it will discuss its strike preparations. It has declined to respond to questions about its strike readiness ahead of that session.

At midweek, rhetoric from both sides suggested a gulf remained.

In a statement, David Phelps, the president and CEO of Berkshire Health Systems, and Diane Kelly, BMC's chief operating officer, said the hospital has offered a fair contract with pay gains and a proposal to involve nurses more in staffing decisions.

"We are disappointed that the MNA has pushed for a strike rather than give that offer due consideration," they said.

Alex Neary, a member of the MNA bargaining committee, said Wednesday in a statement that talks that day did not go well.

"For more than a year, Berkshire Medical Center has refused to negotiate in good faith over workload, safe patient care and quality [and] affordable health insurance," Neary said.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.


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