BMC registered nurses set October strike date

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PITTSFIELD — Registered nurses at Berkshire Medical Center will go on strike Oct. 3, taking a yearlong contract dispute to a new level and matching the activism displayed this summer at two other Massachusetts hospitals.

Nurses represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association delivered a required 10-day strike notice to the medical center Friday.

The job action is scheduled to begin at 7 a.m. Oct. 3 and continue for 24 hours. But the hospital has said that in the event of a strike, it would be forced by logistics concerns and other factors to hire replacement nurses for a full week, while keeping the facility operating and providing care for patients.

Alex Neary, co-chairwoman of the local union's bargaining committee, said she and others felt compelled to strike because they believe the hospital has not been willing in contract negotiations that began last September to consider union requests to augment staffing.

"All other efforts to persuade management to make concrete patient safety improvements and reach a fair agreement have been unsuccessful," she said in a statement Friday.

The hospital's stance has been that the staffing measures sought by the union would not improve on the delivery of care.

David Phelps, president and CEO of Berkshire Health Systems, and Diane Kelly, the hospital's chief operating officer said Friday they are disappointed but not surprised by the strike plan.

The two also said they believe the union has misrepresented the hospital's handling of the negotiations.

"We have bargained in good faith, offering a strong contract for our nurses, while the union is focused on gaining public support for their ballot initiative," the two said in a statement released by the hospital.

"We of course hope that the union will not go through with its strike threat, which would result in a great financial cost to the health system," they said in the statement.

The nearly 800-member union has been working under the terms of the contract that lapsed nearly a year ago.

On Tuesday, five members of the union spoke before a community audience of about 150 at the First Methodist Church in Pittsfield.

Neary said support expressed by people in that audience was a factor in deciding to move ahead with a strike.

Several people rose in the church sanctuary to call on the union to go ahead with a strike.

Aside from staffing issues, the union says it opposes steps by the hospital to alter the terms of health insurance.

More than 80 percent of the local union's voting members cast ballots in late May to reject the hospital's "best and final" offer, then voted by a similar margin in July to allow the 16-member bargaining committee to call a strike.

According to the hospital, that last offer would have granted a 10-percent raise over three years. Yearly starting salaries for registered nurses would have risen from $73,000 in the first year to $75,000. The pact would have provided higher salaries for what are termed "mid-scale and maximum-scale RNs" to over $116,000 per year in the third year. The offer also included added support for education and a higher pay differential, the hospital said.

The hospital says it began planning for a possible strike after the authorization vote in July. Phelps and Kelly said the plan for replacement nurses has been approved by the state Department of Public Health. They said the medical center will be able "to continue all of its operations."

Though the union has called for a 24-hour action, the medical center will use replacement workers for five days.

The hospital says that the nursing agency it will use to provide replacement workers requires a minimum five-day contract.

That means the MNA nurses will be out not for a day but from Oct. 3 through Oct. 7, if the strike goes forward.

"This community can have full confidence that BMC will continue to provide all services and procedures during a strike, and that patients and their families will have safe and unimpeded access to our facilities," the two hospital executives said in their statement.

Staffing issues

Staffing concerns have been central to the union's negotiations not only in Pittsfield, but elsewhere in Massachusetts.

The BMC strike next month will be the third in Massachusetts this year, following short actions at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield and at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

Both sides of the talks in Pittsfield have filed unfair labor complaints against the other with the National Labor Relations Board. Those remain under review at the federal agency's Boston office.

To date, more than 25 bargaining sessions have been held between the union and the hospital. The next one is scheduled for Wednesday.

Phelps and Kelly said the hospital plans to continue to work to reach agreement on a new contract.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214.


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