BMC employees join call to avoid nursing strike; nurses union says 'we are all one'

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PITTSFIELD — With signatures and their own bodies, more than 100 Berkshire Medical Center employees sent a message Monday to registered nurses who plan to strike for a second time next week:

For the good of the hospital, please don't.

A petition launched last week gathered strength over the weekend, organizers say, and brought a flash mob of sorts late Monday morning to the steps of the Bishop Clapp Building to pose for a group photo.

"OK, pile up, pile up," Becky Armstrong told co-workers arriving from the main building across North Street.

Within 10 minutes, people who back a call to avoid Monday's one-day strike and weeklong lockout filled 18 wide steps leading up to the building, some holding signs reading "Support BMC" and "We are all here for our patients."

People jostled and joked, as if at a pep rally. When a distant siren sounded, one asked: "Are they coming to tell us to get back to work?"

They cheered as clusters of co-workers emerged from a door across North Street and several times broke into a "BMC, BMC, BMC" chant.

Many had signed the petition that was to be delivered to the local bargaining committee of the Massachusetts Nurses Association before the 43rd collective bargaining session begins Tuesday. Daylong talks are also scheduled for Wednesday.

In a statement Monday, the MNA's bargaining committee said it supported the right of fellow employees to voice concerns. The union represents about 800 RNs at the hospital.

"We value each of our co-workers and encourage them to speak up for what they believe in, just as we have stood united for patient safety," the statement said. "To our non-RN caregiver co-workers we say this: We're all in this together; we are all one. We are here for you. In unity there is strength."

The nurses said they too wish to avoid a strike, saying it is within the hospital's power to settle the dispute.

"We are united with our co-workers across BMC in seeking a fair resolution that prevents a strike," the statement said.

But employees who gathered Monday believe fairness is already on the table.

The petition reads in part: "We do not support the MNA's decision to strike, and ask for acceptance (of) a fair and reasonable contract."

'Has my number'

Having assembled the group during a lunch break around 11:30 a.m., Armstrong pulled out notes, admitting she wasn't a born public speaker.

She told the group the petition has drawn support from community members and hospital staff around Berkshire County, including employees in North Adams. As of Monday afternoon more than 200 people had signed the short statement.

"I've given out my home phone number. The city of Pittsfield has my number now," Armstrong said to laughter from the steps in front of her. "My husband can attest that the phone's been ringing nonstop."

Then, in a somber voice, Armstrong said she wanted to make sure the point of the petition and gathering was clear.

"We're not looking for a fight; we're looking for a peaceful, reasonable conversation and hoping we can settle this," she said.

Armstrong also called for understanding for co-workers who did not turn out.

"I'm asking that you respect them. There are people who support us but they're just not there yet," she said.

Nonetheless, she and two fellow organizers, Tonya Burns of Savoy and Scott Emerson of Pittsfield, cite wide support among employees.

"It has totally exceeded our expectations. So stay tuned," Armstrong said. "We're going to take this picture so we can all get back to work."

Burns and Emerson said Monday they were pleased by the response.

"I think it's good, considering they have to run out at their lunch break," Emerson said, after being handed a stack of signed petitions. "A lot of positive people here."

Organizers say the hospital played no role in the effort. A spokesman for BMC declined to comment on the petition campaign.

One MNA member drove by and another was seen watching the gathering from an entrance across the street.

James Yeaman, a supervisor in the hospital's security department and former local union president elsewhere with the Service Employees International Union, said he came to support the hospital.

Like others, Yeaman said he's concerned about the financial impact of a second strike, which would cost the hospital $3 million to $4 million, BMC has said.

"These people are here for the patients," Yeaman said of those who gathered, as the group dispersed. "They're all here for the same reason. It's a wonderful bunch of people. They're upset."

Yeaman said he believes RNs have received a good offer from BMC.

"I have never seen a more fair offer. It's the best deal in town," he said.

Diana Mott, who works in payroll accounts payable, said she turned out because she believes it is the right thing to do.

"They've been pushing this a long time," she said of the MNA local. "They have a better deal than most people. I don't think it is going to help patient safety to continuously go out on strike."

Armstrong planned to use vacation time Monday afternoon to remain available to co-workers. She said she'd spoken with employees Monday who hadn't been willing to sign the petition Friday.

"They came back this morning and said they wanted to participate," she said. "There are a lot of people sticking their necks out."

MNA view

In its Monday statement, the MNA local noted that while it has the advantage of being able to bargain for workplace conditions, it does so in the interest of all.

It reaffirmed that its members back the decision to issue a second strike notice. Registered nurses also went on strike Oct. 3.

"We have the great benefit of being part of a union. While that gives us the legal right to demand that management bargain with RNs, our cause is to improve the conditions in our hospital for all caregivers and for all patients," the statement said. "BMC nurses have spoken loud and clear about the need for improved staffing and patient care. We have voted overwhelmingly three times and collected the signatures of hundreds of nurses on various petitions to advance that effort."

One of the signs held aloft Monday took note of the strikes.

"We will never walk out on our patients," it read.

The union statement said nurses join employees in "putting our patients first."

The MNA local said that one of its key demands related to staffing — eliminating or reducing the patient assignments given to "charge" nurses — is a commonsense step that has been taken by other hospitals.

"It is sound nursing practice and it is a proven path to settlement when nurses are seeking staffing improvements," the statement said. "We should easily be able to avoid a strike. ... We hope management is willing to agree to a fair contract during negotiations this week."

Armstrong said later Monday that she continued to receive calls from colleagues who want to join the campaign.

"I don't think the bargaining committee sees the total picture," she said. "I felt empowered standing there today."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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