As lockout of nurses at BMC ends, issues remain at bargaining table

Berkshire Medical Center nurses chant and walk along North Street on Saturday, as their four-day lockout draws to a close after a one-day strike Tuesday.

PITTSFIELD — Three strikes, three stories.

In Boston, any labor-management fractures that might have deepened during a July strike by registered nurses seem to be healing. In Greenfield, though, contract talks remain clogged three months after a walkout.

In Pittsfield, it remains to be seen what lies ahead for relations between union nurses and Berkshire Medical Center after last week's one-day strike and four-day lockout.

As of 7 a.m. Sunday, replacement registered nurses hired through U.S. Nursing Corp. are to hand off details on patient needs to supervisory nurses at BMC who are not members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

Within minutes, after a subsequent briefing to MNA members, operations will return to normal at the Pittsfield hospital and its two satellite campuses off West Street and in North Adams.

Hospital administrators said Friday they aren't looking much past Sunday, as they manage medical center affairs with teams that have included 247 replacement RNs since 7 a.m. Tuesday.

"We're really not focused on negotiations. That's something that will happen in time," said Michael Leary, BMC's spokesman.

"We're focused on inside," said Diane Kelly, a registered nurse who is the hospital's chief operating officer.

For the union, a job action like a strike is all about exerting the power that represented workers possess, seeking leverage for the future.

"The idea is to demonstrate to the employer that the RNs are very serious about the issues on the table and that they have to be resolved," said Dana Simon, the union's director of strategic campaigns.

"Management has to approach this with a sense of realism. None of this is going away," he said. "They actually have to bargain a solution to the issues that we've raised."

Unresolved issues center on staffing, workplace safety and health insurance, he said.

Simon spent a large part of the past week in Pittsfield, helping to rally strikers, advise on the picketing and file an unfair labor practice complaint against the hospital with the National Labor Relations Board.

Other actions

In the other nursing strikes this year, a first step has been to take a step back.

A federal mediator recommended a "cooling off" period after the Tufts Medical Center strike in July.

Given how long contract negotiations have been underway at all three hospitals, the thinking goes, a few weeks won't have much impact. The Tufts contract talks started in April 2016.

Nurses and management at the Pittsfield hospital just marked a full year of sparring over the bargaining table. It has been four months since RNs with the hospital soundly rejected the medical center's "best and final" contract offer.

But talks can come unstuck.

In Boston, registered nurses met twice last week with the negotiating team from Tufts, according to Rhonda Mann, the hospital's director of communications.

"We feel like there's been some good movement," Mann said.

Since the July strike, the parties to the Tufts negotiations have met five times. Though distance remains on contract proposals, including the length of the next contract governing the work of 1,200 registered nurses, Mann cites evidence of progress.

"We're optimistic about the negotiations," she said.

Mann said it was helpful to have a cooling-off period.

"You have so many feelings on each side coming off an event like this," she said of the strike. "Take a deep breath and come back in."

As in Pittsfield, the union's one-day strike was followed by a four-day lockout. Tufts hired replacement nurses from U.S. Nursing, the same agency that supplied staff to Pittsfield.

In fact, many of the nurses who arrived in the Berkshires a week ago worked together during and after the MNA's Tufts strike.

One of the issues on the table for the Tufts contract is also in dispute in Pittsfield: allowing supervisory nurses on a unit, a position the union refers to as a "charge" nurse, to forgo specific patient assignments in some circumstances. That is designed to allow them to help other nurses when patient needs intensify.

In recent contract settlements, language embracing the concept of reduced patient assignments for charge nurses has been accepted by St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Brighton and at Norwood Hospital.

'Regressive' bargaining

In Greenfield, talks between the MNA and Baystate Franklin Medical Center appeared to grow worse after a one-day strike in June and subsequent lockout.

Donna Stern, senior co-chairwoman of the nurses' bargaining unit in Greenfield and an MNA board member, said things started badly when the hospital locked out a nursing shift before the job action began.

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She said that, after the strike, hospital administrators proposed that union members should be responsible for the roughly $1 million it cost to bring in replacement RNs.

Repeated attempts Thursday and Friday to reach a spokesman for Baystate Franklin Medical Center were unsuccessful.

Stern said that while negotiations have resumed, no progress is being made.

She said the union continues to press demands that the hospital address staffing issues that impose unworkable strains on RNs.

"We've been talking about safe staffing for 20 years," Stern said. "The crisis is at epic proportions."

She believes that talks in Greenfield are at a standstill as both sides cling to established positions.

Not surprisingly, she believes that it is the hospital that has engaged in "regressive bargaining" and needs to move closer to the MNA's side.

"They're as entrenched as they've ever been," she said.

Stern said a second strike remains a possibility at the Greenfield hospital.

Simon confirmed that follow-up strikes have been called in other places.

"It's premature in Pittsfield," he said. "Our first desire is that they return to the table."

Pittsfield's restart

A week ago, though both sides in the BMC talks said they expressed a willingness to meet in advance of the planned Tuesday strike, the federal mediator involved, Cynthia Jeffries, opted not to call them together, according to Simon of the MNA.

"She said, 'It is not my recommendation that the parties meet,'" he said.

Contacted by The Eagle last week, Jeffries declined to comment on the negotiations.

Simon said that in addition to proving their own resolve, members of the MNA used this past week to strengthen their support in the community.

He said part of the union's strategy is to tap into the respect that people in the Berkshires have for their nurses — and bring that to bear on negotiations.

"The nurses are a part of this community and the whole community has been showing support for the nurses," Simon said. "More and more people have come out to show their support — specifically in response to the way [the hospital] is speaking about nurses. That's why we've seen a constant stream of cars and trucks honking their horns."

One nurse's call

Though separated by walls, lawns and security guards this week, the two sides to the Pittsfield contract dispute share a livelihood. All work for Berkshire Medical Center.

Outside BMC on Tuesday, Alexis Montgomery, a registered nurse who works in case management, was waving to cars on Wahconah Street and calling out warm greetings to everyone walking by.

Her mission, she said, was to change people's attitudes about members of the nursing union.

"I love Berkshire Medical Center," she said.

While Montgomery sided wholeheartedly with fellow strikers, she expressed regret that the contract stalemate existed.

"I feel like it's 'The Hunger Games,'" she said, referring to the science fiction book and movies about a world in which young people battle to the death in televised matches.

"I feel like we're all fighting each other," Montgomery said, "when we should be standing together."

Inside the hospital, Brenda Cadorette, BMC's chief nursing officer, was expressing a similar sentiment Friday.

It fell to Cadorette to help oversee the introduction of replacement nurses. She said she was impressed by how well members of the hospital's medical teams absorbed the outside help, in the interests of providing care for patients.

"Every staff member in this organization came together to support our community," Cadorette said.

Outside, in interviews between their union chants, nurses expressed what appeared to be heartfelt wishes that they, too, could be inside caring for patients.

That starts again at 7 a.m. Sunday.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.

Investigations editor

Larry Parnass, investigations editor, joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant and CommonWealth Magazine.