A strike won't cut services

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NORTH ADAMS -- North Adams Regional Hospital will use a national firm to replace some 174 unionized health care workers if a planned strike goes into effect on Saturday, Dec. 12.

Service Employee International Union members voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike during a membership meeting on Monday night. A 10-day strike notice was given to hospital executives on Tuesday when negotiations between the two sides resumed. The strike will go into effect at 7 a.m. on Dec. 12, should a contract not be reached beforehand.

Negotiations were still in progress late Tuesday when Richard Palmisano, president and CEO of Northern Berkshire Healthcare, the hospital's parent corporation, said in a release that the hospital would continue to "provide high quality health care services to our patients without interruption" if the strike takes place as planned.

"This is a very unfortunate step taken by the SEIU. No one wins in a strike," he said. "As soon as a strike became a possible outcome of negotiations, we began planning. We have engaged a national firm with experience in helping hospitals manage strikes."

Palmisano said the hospital would bring on enough qualified replacements to ensure that each department could continue its normal functions during the strike.

"Despite our sincere desire to avoid a strike and our willingness to work with them at the bargaining sessions, the SEIU has chosen this course," he said. "Our health systems' challenges are substantial and must be addressed on all fronts. We continue to hope the SEIU will come to recognize the reality of our circumstances and join us in finding solutions."

Northern Berkshire Healthcare faces a $4 million operating loss and an additional $4.1 million loss on investments this year.

Although the union is prepared to strike, officials once again reiterated on Tuesday that the move is a last resort.

"Our message has been clear from the start that we are ready to negotiate at any time, anywhere and for as long as it takes to reach a resolution," SEIU spokesman Jeff Hall said.

He said if the strike should take place as scheduled, the union's members -- which include unit secretaries, respiratory therapists, licensed practical nurses, dietary aides and certified nursing assistants -- will receive 80 percent of their gross pay from the SEIU strike fund.

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Hospital officials have called for 108 concessions from the union including the elimination of sick leave buyback, reduced or no wage increases, reductions in paid time off, expanded responsibilities for certain positions, a freeze on participation in defined benefit pension plans, and overtime pay coming only after working more than 40 hours in a week.

Union officials continued to press for transparency from Northern Berkshire Healthcare management on Tuesday, urging Palmisano to come to the negotiating table in place of "a high-priced consultant" from Ohio.

"We need to look at this negotiating team and its motives with scrutiny," SEIU Vice President Michael Fadel said on Monday. "This team is lead by a Michael Shuey, a union-busting attorney from Ohio, along with Arthur Scott, NBH vice president of human resources, and Paul Kulp, director of human resources.

"Up until Cambio was brought in to oversee the hospital, NBH had always used a local lawyer and always had department heads at the negotiating table. One of these people is an outsider and the other two have been with the organization less than three years."

NBH officials responded that Palmisano "is monitoring the negotiations through our team and is confident in their extensive negotiating experience."

"The individuals sitting at the table are considered to be the most appropriate people to represent NBH," Paul Hopkins, hospital spokesman, said Tuesday. "As we have said many times before, NBH does not have any attorneys on staff. When we enter into negotiations with a union, the issues become so complex that it only makes sense to have good representation at the table with us. This has always been the case. The other members of our negotiating team are employees of NBH."

He added that at least two members of SEIU's negotiating team are "most certainly from out of town."

Union members also are expressing a growing concern over the health care organization's recent announcement that it is looking to partner with a larger organization. Rumors have circulated amongst the staff that the hospital will be sold off as a separate entity.

Palmisano has confirmed that NBH has been in talks with four other organizations about a possible affiliation, although he declined to release any names. However, union officials said on Tuesday that three of the possible partners include Berkshire Medical Center, Albany General in Albany, N.Y., and BayState Medical Center in Springfield.

"Our chief concern is that our contract with the hospital remains intact," Fadel said. "If NBH merges, affiliates or partners, the contract has to be acknowledged. We've had mergers happen with our other chapters and things are fine. A merger could be a great benefit as long as this acute-care hospital still exists at the end of the day."

Palmisano also has confirmed that the organization intended to sell both Sweetwood and Sweetbrook in Williamstown by the end of the year.


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