Berkshire Medical Center RNs weighing second strike

BMC registered nurses and MNA supporters gather at Park Square in Pittsfield to march a petition to Pittsfield Cooperative Bank asking trustees to support union demands in contract talks, Monday, January 8, 2018.

PITTSFIELD — Registered nurses at Berkshire Medical Center are considering a second one-day strike, raising the stakes for negotiations that began in 2016 and continue into a third calendar year.

Results of a strike authorization vote are expected next week, after members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association cast ballots in two separate sessions, union members said Monday.

Meantime, the National Labor Relations Board has dismissed the hospital's allegation that the union has failed to bargain in good faith. The hospital is considering an appeal.

And in its continued outreach to Berkshire Health Systems trustees, the union attempted Monday to deliver a petition to Jerome J. Anderson, a trustee who is president and CEO of the Pittsfield Cooperative Bank. When a group of nearly a dozen union members sought an audience at noon with Anderson at the 70 South St. bank in Pittsfield, it was told that he was not in the building.

Support for a second strike remains uncertain, union officials acknowledge, but is seen by some as an important tool.

Harley Keisch, a nurse and member of the union's board, said he plans to vote to empower the bargaining committee to call another walkout.

"We need every tool to try to make this move forward," Keisch said of contract talks that began in September 2016. "A strike is the last possible resort."

A bargaining session will be held Tuesday at the Hilton Garden Inn off Route 20 in Pittsfield, the first of 2018. Talks are aided by a federal mediator.

In a letter sent Monday to all registered nurses, a hospital official noted a positive tone in recent negotiations and expressed surprise another strike is being considered.

"Our positive experience in the three negotiating sessions since October led us to believe that we could work collaboratively with the union," wrote Brenda Cadorette, the hospital's chief nursing officer.

"We were, therefore, both surprised and disappointed to learn that the MNA had scheduled votes on January 11 and 16 to authorize a second strike," Cadorette said.

The strike authorization vote itself does not guarantee that a second job action by the 800-member union will take place. If authorized by eligible members, the strike would be called by the bargaining committee. The union is required to give the hospital 10 days' notice of a strike, as it did in advance of the Oct. 3 action.

Last July, 83 percent of the local's members voted to authorize a strike. It was held Oct. 3, one of three called by the union in the state last year, and kicked off five days of rallies and pickets outside the North Street institution.

The hospital hired U.S. Nursing Corp., an outside agency, to supply 247 replacement RNs for five days. It cost Berkshire Medical Center an estimated $4 million to provide replacement staffing and to cover other costs related to the one-day strike.

Leilani Hover, a registered nurse in BMC's critical care unit, said she and others have been canvassing members to gauge their support for a second strike.

"Without members' support, no action can be a success," said Hover, a member of the union's bargaining committee. "We'll play it step by step."

Hover said members may be less willing to strike during winter weather, and to again give up a week's worth of pay. But she cited frustrations with the pace of contract negotiations.

"It's a mixed bag because we take a serious hit," Hover said of a strike. "I think the general consensus is that we need to do something. We need to act."

Hospital's view

In her Monday letter to RNs, Cadorette recounted what she sees as progress in negotiations, including agreement on contract language related to safety inside the hospital.

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"We were able to reach consensus on language that includes confirmation that no nurse will face hospital disciplinary action if he or she responds in a reasonable way to safety threats from patients or visitors," Cadorette wrote.

The union confirms that in a Dec. 20 session, the two sides agreed to language that responds to concerns nurses have about their safety at work, particularly when caring for combative patients.

"It bolsters the ability of nurses to respond to certain situations," said Joe Markman, a union spokesman.

But Cadorette's letter restated the hospital's opposition to a union request that "charge" nurses not be assigned direct care of patients, so they can help other RNs facing unexpected demands due to changes in the number of patients.

Still, her letter seemed to express sympathy for what the union is seeking.

"We agree that charge nurse duties include important non-direct patient care functions and we are willing, whenever reasonably possible, to keep charge nurses free of direct patient assignments in order for them to fulfill those other obligations," Cadorette wrote.

But due to "ever-changing patient care needs on each of our units [it is] impossible to reduce that goal to a specific contractual commitment," she wrote.

On the larger question of overall staffing by registered nurses, an issue that may go before state voters in a ballot question this November, the two sides remain apart.

"We do not believe that determining shift staffing by a rigid numerical formula or by regular arbitration, as proposed by the MNA, is a safe or appropriate approach," Cadorette wrote.

Hover, the union bargaining committee member, notes that other contracts at Massachusetts hospitals do allow such provisions.

"It's possible, but they have to want to do it," she said of hospital negotiators. "They have not been willing to bargain. But there is always hope."

Labor complaint

In a Dec. 27 letter, two officials with the Boston office of the NLRB detail reasons for dismissing the hospital's September claim that the union has been bargaining in bad faith — in violation of federal labor laws.

"The investigation revealed insufficient evidence to find that [the] Union has engaged in bad faith bargaining," the letter said.

The hospital had claimed the MNA hoped to advance its statewide campaign for nurse-patient staffing ratios — and that it had not made a "meaningful" effort to reach agreement.

Arthur Milano, who recently retired as the hospital's vice president of human resources, has said the hospital's three-member bargaining team, on which he still sits, came to believe "the union was using negotiations with BMC more to publicize its November 2018 ballot initiative ... than to address the wages, benefits or working conditions or our nurses here in Pittsfield."

But the NLRB decided otherwise.

"The investigation revealed both the Union and the Employer have engaged in hard bargaining in support of key issues, both parties have made concessions on various issues, and tentative agreements have been made in many areas," wrote Elizabeth A. Gemperlin, acting regional director, and Thomas E. Quigley, acting officer in charge.

Michael Leary, a BMC spokesman, said the hospital "is in the process of deciding whether to appeal the NLRB ruling."

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