Nurses union sets new public events as talks resume

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PITTSFIELD — Contract negotiations between Berkshire Health Systems and its registered nurses are set to resume — and so are a union's public appeals.

Next Monday, on the eve of a bargaining session, members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association will hold a "patient safety vigil" outside Berkshire Medical Center.

But first, they'll renew union members' demands with informational picketing Wednesday outside the hospital's main North Street entrance.

That is where hundreds of union members carried signs and rallied during a one-day strike and four-day lockout in early October.

Joe Markman, a union spokesman, said Wednesday's rally, which runs from 4 to 5:30 p.m., will include public remarks and the distribution of literature. Monday's event is scheduled for 5:30 to 7 p.m. in the same location, at 725 North St. in Pittsfield.

Contract talks are expected to pick up Nov. 14 right where the two sides left off before the Oct. 3 strike and subsequent lockout.

"Nothing's changed at the table because we haven't been back," Markman said of negotiations. A federal mediator is working to help the hospital and union find common ground.

Another bargaining session is planned Nov. 28.

Markman said he was unaware of any discussion about calling a second strike in Pittsfield, but said that is "always a possibility" when talks stall. A second strike, like the first, would have to be approved in a ballot vote by all of the local's full members.

Last month's job action and lockout affected nearly 800 RNs at the hospital and at other locations in Pittsfield and North Adams run by Berkshire Health Systems.

The issue of staffing levels remains a key sticking point.

"We want the hospital to agree to reasonable compromises to improve patient safety," Markman said Monday.

The hospital has offered to allow nurses to participate in a new committee that would make recommendations on staffing to hospital executives. It has characterized the union's staffing demands are unnecessary and unaffordable.

The union has asked the hospital to agree not to allow the nursing workload to intensify. In another move, the union has asked that Berkshire Medical agree to reduce or eliminate the number of patient assignments taken on by so-called "charge" nurses, enabling these supervisors to help colleagues when the patient census suddenly rises or expected staffing is unavailable.

Registered nurses worked for nearly a year after an old pact lapsed in September 2016. Federal law compels health care staff to continue to work during contract talks to protect public safety.

Terms of the former agreement were voided by the union in advance of it calling for a one-day strike. Nonetheless, nurses continue to work under many terms of the former contract, including pay and work duties.

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


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