Strike in North Adams conjures memories of former hospital's closure

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NORTH ADAMS — Mary Bryant stood stood on the picket line Tuesday not only as a current patient, but a former nurse at the now-closed North Adams Regional Hospital.

"It's not the first time I've walked this street, but it's painful every time," Bryant said, joining dozens of other nurses and community members on Hospital Avenue in North Adams early Tuesday morning.

Bryant was a nurse for 40 years until North Adams Regional Hospital closed in 2014. Over the years, nurses marched in the same location during labor disputes with the former hospital.

"I want to make sure we have safe staffing levels," Bryant said.

In the wake of the community hospital's closure, Berkshire Health Systems acquired the facility and now operates a satellite campus there, with an emergency department and numerous other medical services.

On Tuesday, in a scene reminiscent of the protests that immediately followed the abrupt closure of the former hospital, a mixture of North Adams Police and private security guards were stationed outside the facility.

Members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association and local residents were on the picket line after a year of unsuccessful contract negotiations between the union and Berkshire Health Systems.

"It's about providing for our patients," said Jen Billington, a nurse of 22 years who works at the North Adams campus in the Endoscopy Unit.

Billington said the nurses understand that Berkshire Health Systems management needs to run a business, but said "We're the ones taking care of patients" and understand what are safe staffing levels.

Nurses on the picket line said they did not make the decision to strike for one day — followed by a four-day lockout — lightly, noting that they are losing five days' pay and frustration in not being able to care for patients during this time.

"I know the girls in the ER were in tears just leaving the ER this morning," said Jennifer Howland, a nurse in ambulatory surgery who worked at the former North Adams Regional Hospital.

For Mike Wilbur, a community member and advocate for medical services in Northern Berkshire County, said the theme of Tuesday's strike was simple: "Our nurses, our city."

Nurses and community members along the picket line chanted lines such as "I don't know, but I've been told, [Berkshire Health Systems President and CEO] David Phelps has no soul."

They also chanted that the "MNA is here to stay."

Reach staff writer Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376 or @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter.


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