Our Opinion: Nurses' strike won't resolve issues on table

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On Tuesday at 7 a.m., registered nurses at Berkshire Medical Center (BMC) will begin a one-day strike that will then turn into a four-day lockout. Strike/lockouts elsewhere in Massachusetts this summer did not change the dynamic between nurses and administrators and there is no reason to believe the situation will be any different here. So why go forward?

On Friday, a U.S. District Court judge in Springfield rejected BMC's request for an injunction to block the strike on the grounds that the citing of unfair labor practices as the reason for the strike by the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) requires the union contractually to address their complaint through negotiations (Eagle, September 28). The strike will go forward, but the reality remains that this dispute will have to be resolved through negotiations.

This summer, union nurses at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield and at Tufts Medical Center in Boston held one-day strikes. Those were followed by brief lockouts, as will be the case locally if there is a strike, because hospitals must agree to employ replacements for a minimum number of days to receive their services. In BMC's case, that is five days. Administrators at Tufts say that the strike will cost the hospital $6 million in additional security and staffing expenses, money that it has removed from the proposed salary increases it offered the nurses in their contract offer.

After the strike and lockout concluded and the dust was allowed to settle, nurses and administrators at both Baystate and Franklin returned to the negotiating table. Right where they left off. The most tangible result, at least at Tufts, is that the contract proposal to the nurses from Tufts took a hit.

If the argument for a one-day strike is to draw attention to the nurses' demands, there has been considerable attention paid to the issue on The Eagle's news and opinion pages in recent months. The nurses' absence could highlight their value and win support, but it could also cause animosity among those who are inconvenienced, as many surely will be in dealing with qualified nurses who are nonetheless not familiar with how things work at BMC in Pittsfield, the Hillcrest Cancer Center in Pittsfield and the BMC campus in North Adams. If a one-day strike is intended to be symbolic, what is it symbolic of?

The contractual issues involve salaries, health insurance premiums and staffing levels — this latter issue is the one that has attracted the most heat. Each side buttresses its argument with studies and statistics and anecdotes. In August, the MNA filed a referendum question mandating minimum staffing levels in operating rooms, maternity wards and outpatient units across the state that could appear on the November 2018 ballot. Staffing levels must have flexibility given the difference in size between rural hospitals in Western Massachusetts and the large teaching hospitals of Boston. That flexibility can be better addressed through negotiations than a referendum, as ballot questions tend to be vaguely and inadequately worded.

The merits of the arguments made by BMC and the nurses aside, these differences will not be affected by or resolved by a strike. They will have to be resolved at the negotiating table, just as they have to be in Greenfield and Boston. We urge the registered nurses of BMC to call off a strike that will accomplish nothing positive but will cause increasing bad blood and cost the hospital and the nurses money. Then we urge both parties to meet at the bargaining table with increased urgency and reach a contract that is fair to all.


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