Berkshire Medical Center files labor complaint against Massachusetts Nurses Association

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PITTSFIELD — Berkshire Medical Center wants the federal government to investigate whether a nursing union is more interested in scoring political points than reaching a new contract.

In a filing Thursday with the National Labor Relations Board in Boston, the hospital claims the Massachusetts Nurses Association is refusing to bargain in good faith — a claim the union rejects.

The two sides are nearly a year into talks to replace a contract for more than 780 registered nurses at the Pittsfield hospital.

The hospital's filing joins three unfair labor practice complaints the union lodged this summer against Berkshire Medical. All are listed as open cases by the federal agency and under active investigation.

Scott Burson, a deputy regional attorney for the NLRB, said the hospital's complaint has been assigned to the same agent handling the union's earlier actions.

"It will be looked at in its entirety," Burson said.

The cases have been ranked as a "middle" priority for the agency, Burson said. That status means the NLRB tries to resolve them within 63 calendar days.

The hospital's filling comes after 12 months of contentious negotiations. Nurses rejected the hospital's best and final offer this spring and voted 442-92 to authorize their bargaining committee to call a one-day strike.

If the union were to go out on strike, it would first have to file a 10-day notice. The hospital has said it will use replacement nurses to keep the medical center functioning in the event of a strike.

Arthur J. Milano Jr., vice president for human resources at Berkshire Health Systems, said the hospital believes the union is "only going through the motions" after more than two dozen negotiating sessions since Sept. 23, 2016. The nurses by law continue working under the terms of the old contract.

"We feel the need to get this negotiation back on track," he said Thursday. "For months on end, there were no material changes in their position at all."

The hospital's complaint cites section 8(b)(3) of the National Labor Relations Act, which makes it illegal for unions to refuse to bargain in good faith.

In its statement to the NLRB, the hospital asserts the union has not made any "significant material modification" of its demands. It also claims that the MNA resubmitted proposals during bargaining.

The NLRB filing closes with a challenge about the union's motivations. David M. Mandel, a hospital attorney, notes that the MNA has been pushing statewide to secure contract language mandating staffing levels.

The union has moved to place a referendum question related to staffing on the 2018 state ballot.

"It would appear that these negotiations are designed to serve MNA's push for a statewide staffing law rather than to serve interests more germane to the local bargaining unit," Mandel's filing says.

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Milano, of Berkshire Health, said in a statement the hospital believes the MNA is "focused on using negotiations at Berkshire and other Massachusetts hospitals as a platform to promote its own interests."

And that, the hospital claims, adds up to a violation of federal labor law.

But Joe Markman, a spokesman for the MNA, called the hospital's unfair labor practice charge "completely unfounded."

"Nurses have bargained in good faith the entire time and have made numerous revisions to their proposals," Markman said in a statement, in response to a request for comment. "To say otherwise is dishonest."

He said that nurses at the hospital have proposed changes to how care is provided in ways that do not involve staffing issues.

"We expect that when this charge is dismissed, BMC will settle with MNA BMC nurses," Markman said. "BMC should return to the table, bargain in good faith and address the very real concerns of nurses and the community."

The hospital alleges the union has wrongly claimed it has adjusted its stance in negotiations. New proposals from the union, the hospital said in a statement, "are simply repackaged versions of proposals that Berkshire [Medical Center] representatives explained months ago were unacceptable."

Milano said the union began talks with a request for staffing grids, but backed off of that when the hospital refused the terms. He said the union switched to proposed contract language with regard to staffing that would have enabled union members to file grievances if numbers were not met.

"Those are the things that have gotten hospitals into trouble," Milano told The Eagle.

A union spokesman has said the MNA has moved away from its initial staffing proposals and is focusing now on wage and benefits issues in the context of a one-year contract.

Union complaints

The union filed three unfair labor practice complaints against the hospital this summer on July 18, July 26 and Aug. 9.

They allege coercive treatment, refusal to bargain, repudiation or modification of a contract and refusal to furnish information.

Markman said those cases are under review by the NLRB office. Last week, the union's lead negotiator on the BMC contract, Dana Simon, met for a day with an NLRB attorney on the cases.

Burson, the NLRB attorney, said the agent handling the hospital complaints will interview witnesses and review documents, then report to the Boston-based regional director, John J. Walsh Jr., who decides whether to issue a complaint. In most cases, the parties to a dispute reach a settlement, Burson said.

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


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