Teamsters not happy with nurses' lockout; impact on hospital services still unclear

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PITTSFIELD — Striking nurses won support from other area unions Tuesday, and a big one in particular - the Teamsters.

In a letter to Berkshire Medical Center's chief executive, Teamsters Joint Council 10 New England said it hoped the hospital would negotiate with the Massachusetts Nurses Association and not go forward with a four-day lockout starting Wednesday.

It was unclear Tuesday night whether Teamsters members would cross the nursing union's picket line.

"Each day Teamsters deliver parcels, freight, medical supplies, equipment, linens, pick up trash, and shuttle patients to Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield and the North Adams Campus," wrote Sean O'Brien, the Teamsters principal executive officer.

He addressed the letter to David Phelps, president and CEO of Berkshire Health Systems.

Teamsters officials could not be reached for comment about whether their members would halt work at the hospital. And BMC officials could not be reached to confirm whether the hospital had alternative plans in the event Teamsters refused to work.

Jack Downing, president of Soldier On, a veteran support organization that transports veterans to and from the hospital, said the strike wouldn't interfere with their work.

"Our job is to serve veterans even if it brings us into conflict with other values and systems," he said, noting that Berkshire Health Systems is a great supporter of the organization.

Other backing

The MNA called Tuesday's one-day strike following a year of bargaining. While wages and benefits were at issue, the union says the reason for the impasse is staffing levels that are too low and present a danger to patients.

BMC, however, says its nurse-to-patient ratios meet industry standards, and that rigid ratios are "unaffordable and impractical."

At an evening rally on the picket line, the air was thick with mistrust of the hospital.

And other Pittsfield-based union support was strong.

Other union members told The Eagle that while they would support the BMC nurses no matter what, the health and safety issues the MNA is raising are paramount.

"With this [strike] it's a little bit extra," said Judy Toomey of United Steelworkers of America Local 12325.

A group of Verizon workers with the IBEW Local 2324 didn't want to be identified for this story. But one said he would support the nurses "on any issue." The others agreed.

"We support them no matter what," said Ron Holmes, business manager for Laborer's Local 473, a union with 767 members that includes Unistress employees. "When a union fights together, we win."

Michael Cirullo, a spokesman for IUE-CWA255, the main union for General Dynamics workers, said in a phone interview that pleas by the nurses for increased safety is what rallied his union's members.

"This is not a strike that has been framed as wanting more for its members," he said. "This is about safe staffing, not only for patients but workers. This is something all unions care about."

And he said it isn't just nurses who worry about low staffing.

"An understaffed workforce of any kind can put workers in danger," he added. "These are not just greedy nurses looking for more wages and benefits."

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871.


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