Berkshire Medical Center raps nurses union over erroneous news release
PITTSFIELD — A public relations blunder heightened tensions Tuesday between Berkshire Medical Center and its biggest union, even before the sides return to collective bargaining after a strike and lockout.
Because of an internal mistake, the Massachusetts Nurses Association distributed a news release Tuesday morning that misstated developments involving the National Labor Relations Board.
The release criticized the hospital for something the union did itself: withdraw an unfair labor practice complaint.
The hospital seized on the slip-up to again question the union's motives, as rhetoric heated up on both sides of the dispute, a year after a three-year contract lapsed.
Dana Simon, the union's director of strategic campaigns, said he misread a Friday communication from the labor relations board, believing that it concerned an unfair labor practice complaint the hospital filed Sept. 7 accusing the union of not bargaining in good faith.
In fact, the withdrawn claim concerned one of the union's own allegations against the hospital — about a new absenteeism policy.
"It was a mistake. It wasn't made in bad faith," Simon said of the error that led to the news release. "We did the right thing instantly when it was brought to our attention."
Registered nurses continue to work under terms of a contract that lapsed Sept. 30, 2016, but is officially terminated. Nurses held a one-day strike Oct. 3, returning to work Oct. 8, after a four-day lockout.
Simon learned of the mistake when he received a sharply worded letter Tuesday afternoon from Arthur J. Milano Jr., the hospital's vice president for human resources, while Simon was attending contract talks with another employer.
Milano called on the union to "immediately and fully retract your false claim."
"The MNA is apparently so fixated upon destroying the good reputation that the clinical teams at Berkshire Medical Center have built," Milano said in the letter, "that it has now chosen to invent a story that the hospital has given up on its charge that, in service to your statewide agenda, the MNA has been engaged in a year-long pattern of bad faith bargaining."
The hospital provided a copy of Milano's letter to The Eagle, along with supporting labor relations board documents.
Milano went on to renew claims that the union values its agenda over the interests of its members. It represents nearly 800 registered nurses at BMC.
The union's release includes quotes from two veteran nurses, one of whom calls the hospital's complaint a "public relations ploy, one of many baseless accusations Berkshire Medical Center has aimed at its own nurses rather than settle a fair contract."
To the union's embarrassment, the baseless charge was its own.
Joe Markman, a spokesman for the union, said both nurses were told in error that the hospital's complaint about bargaining in bad faith had been pulled.
"The MNA made a mistake in saying the charge was withdrawn," he said. "We do apologize for making that mistake and putting out information that was not correct."
In his letter, Milano scolded Simon for soliciting comments from the two nurses, whose views have been featured in union communications for the past several months, along with those of other members of the union's bargaining committee.
"In support of your fictitious claim," Milano wrote, "you have even gone so far as to attribute baseless quotes to our nurses, Alex Neary and Gerri Jakacky, celebrating our supposed withdrawal of the charge."
Typically, federal mediators involved in health care negotiations hope for a "cooling off" period after a strike or job action. Strikes also were called this year at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield and Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
On Tuesday, temperatures were rising, as the hospital executive took aim at the union's work in support of a possible referendum next year on nurse staffing levels in Massachusetts hospitals.
Disagreement between the hospital and the union over what constitutes safe and proper staffing by registered nurses remains a top issue 13 months into contract talks. No new bargaining sessions have been scheduled since the strike and lockout the week of Oct. 1.
"Your current claim about the hospital," Milano told Simon in his letter, "only convinces us more that the union targeted three Massachusetts hospital systems for labor actions this year just to raise public awareness of its 2018 ballot question designed to fatten the ranks and treasury of the union."
Source of mistake
Simon took responsibility Tuesday for misreading the labor relations board notice.
"We do take accuracy quite seriously," he said.
He said the two nurses quoted in the news release are not to blame for the error.
"It's not their fault that they had that mistaken belief," Simon said. He noted that the union's retraction was issued minutes after he received Milano's letter notifying him of the error.
When asked about Milano's suggestion that the union cares more about a "statewide agenda" than about BMC nurses, Simon said: "If that was the case, we wouldn't have corrected the record about 10 minutes after this coming to our attention."
The unfair labor practice complaint that was withdrawn had been filed in late July, after the union learned of a new absenteeism policy.
"Management has broadened the circumstances in which absentee occurrences will be disciplined without regard for the reason for said absences or any other changes," Simon wrote in the July 27 complaint.
Markman said that complaint was dropped because the union learned that the policy did not apply to nurses represented through the collective bargaining.
Meantime, the hospital's complaint accusing the union of not bargaining in good faith remains under review by the labor relations board. It was filed Sept. 7 and alleges that, after more than 28 bargaining sessions, starting in August 2016, the union has not made any "significant material modification from its original demands."
The union counters that it has adapted its proposals, backing away from an early call for staffing ratios to a request that the hospital consider allowing the nurses supervising units to be spared patient assignments so they can assist other nurses when needed.
"Nurses all along were ready to make new proposals," Markman said. One was advanced Sept. 27, he said, the week before the strike and lockout.
He said the union will return to the table with the proposal about "charge" nurses intact, because members want that in their next contract.
"We're hoping to get back to the table as soon as possible," Markman said. The union has provided the federal mediator with prospective dates for resumed negotiations.
On Tuesday, three weeks after the one-day strike, the union will hold a rally with speakers from 5 to 7 p.m. outside the Pittsfield hospital. Markman said the union wants to send the message that, while nurses are no longer on a picket line, they are pressing for a contract on their terms.
"To show the public that this is not over," he said. "We're hoping to have a really big turnout."
Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.
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