Ahead of 1-day nurses strike, union holds vigil outside Berkshire Medical Center

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PITTSFIELD — People waving from hospital windows greeted about 80 Berkshire Health Systems nurses and their supporters as they marched Monday night in front of Berkshire Medical Center — a union's first show of force before a 24-hour strike begins at 7 a.m. Tuesday.

Registered nurses in the crowd pressed their union's central argument: more staff are needed to care for patients with complicated conditions.

"The patients are older and sicker," said Cathy Yost, a nurse for over 40 years. "It just comes down to not enough staff in our department."

Nurse Alex Huber said she starts shifts with a bare-bones crew.

"Tomorrow is my 34th anniversary," she said of her time at the hospital. "Not much of a celebration."

Nurses represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association are set to walk off the job following nearly a year of contract negotiations between the nurses and management.

The strike will affect three locations: Berkshire Medical Center and the BMC Cancer Center at the Hillcrest campus, both in Pittsfield, and Berkshire Health North in North Adams.

The union called for a one-day action, but the agency providing replacement nurses requires a minimum five-day contract, according to Berkshire Health Systems, parent company of Berkshire Medical Center.

Not drawing a paycheck for most of this week will be a financial challenge for Mark Brodeur, who works in post-anesthesia care. He cares for an individual with severe autism.

He carried a black sign with illuminated lettering, part of a message spelling out: "Safe Staffing Now."

For him, the strike is a moral obligation.

"As a nurse, I can't just give up and do what I'm told," said Brodeur, who has worked as a nurse at BMC for 10 years. "I think it's more important now than ever for people to fight for what they believe in ... even if it's hard. Things aren't going to get better on their own."

When asked what made the strike worth it to her, nurse Liz Celentano had a simple answer.

"Patients," she said. "The people I work with. It's our community. These are the people we take care of."

Celentano has worked at the hospital for 15 years. In the early 1980s, she was also briefly a licensed practical nurse at BMC.

She said she's worried about patient care while the nurses are gone.

"Do they really have enough people to give care?" she asked of the hospital's staffing plans. "You've got to wonder."

Officials with BMC say their coverage plan will ensure continued care without interruptions.

Celentano said staffing has been short more and more often lately — including last Saturday, when nurses weren't able to leave the floor to eat. "The only way we had any kind of meal was because the [Massachusetts Nurses Association] came through and fed people," she said.

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Celentano, along with other nurses interviewed at the vigil, said she believes the hospital failed to negotiate with nurses in good faith.

"If they gave us a chance — we're problem-solvers," she said. "They drew a line in the sand. None of us want this."

Hospital officials say they communicated to the union through a federal mediator that they were willing to negotiate through the past weekend. They say the union did not respond to that offer.

Members of other unions, including the Berkshire Community College Professional Organization — a chapter of the Massachusetts Community College Council — expressed similar dissatisfaction with hospital management, saying they would support the MNA in its strike efforts.

"I guess the simplest way to put it is — labor supports labor," said Liz Recko-Morrison of the Berkshire Community College Professional Organization.

She wore a handwritten sign reading: "Safe working conditions for nurses equals patient safety."

She addressed the crowd, telling members of the union that she wished they didn't have to be there.

"I wish the hospital had bargained in better faith with you," she said. "We will stand up for you and with you."

The hospital has said it could not agree to "unrealistic and unsustainable" staffing demands by the union, and that the requested changes would not improve care.

Union members dispute that.

"We need more help to get things done the way we're supposed to," said Rachael Robie, who cares for stroke and seizure patients. "We just don't have enough hands to do it."

Other views

Bob Skidmore, a retired Methodist pastor and engineer, remembered his time in the hospital two years before. He said nursing care was excellent, but his experience as a patient was not.

He told the crowd to loud cheering that the hospital has too many administrators.

His wife, Carla Skidmore, retired from Berkshire Medical Center in 2003. Staffing was bad then, and is worse now, she said.

"I don't know how all of you do it," she told the crowd. "I honestly do not. You don't have the staff."

Local candidates for political office also spoke to those gathered, including Kevin Towle, a candidate for state representative of the 1st Berkshire District, and Jason LaForest, a candidate for City Council in North Adams and a second-career nurse.

LaForest reminded the nurses gathered to not forget why they went to nursing school.

"You are here for all of the right reasons," he said. "We will be here for you."

Reach staff writer Patricia LeBoeuf at 413-496-6247 or @BE_pleboeuf.


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