BMC RNs vote for 2nd one-day strike — if it's deemed necessary

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PITTSFIELD — A second one-day strike is now possible at Berkshire Medical Center, after registered nurses granted their negotiators the power to call that action at the region's largest employer.

In a second day of balloting Tuesday, members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association voted 369-80 to authorize their bargaining committee to set a strike, if that panel deems it necessary. No date was specified.

The vote does not mean a strike will be called. But it hands that option to the union for the second time in the same contract negotiations, underway since September 2016.

By law, the union must provide a 10-day notice of a strike. The outcome was determined after two separate days of balloting, Jan. 11 and Tuesday, and overcame some doubts about whether nurses are willing to staff picket lines in the dead of winter.

"It was really exciting," Amber VanBramer, a union member from Pittsfield, said after the vote count finished at a hall on West Housatonic Street. "If you truly have a passion for something, weather really doesn't matter," she said.

The 82 percent support for a second strike, expressed in a secret ballot, compares with the 83 percent of voting members who authorized the union's bargaining unit to call a strike last July.

That one-day walkout took place Oct. 3, one of three called by the union in Massachusetts last year.

To keep the hospital operating last fall, Berkshire Medical Center administrators hired 247 replacement RNs through U.S. Nursing Corp. for five days. The hospital said that it could not hire substitute workers for one day; it barred RNs from returning to work for the four days after the one-day strike.

Hospital officials said it cost $4 million to provide replacement staff, arrange security details and cover other costs related to the strike and four-day lockout. For their part, nurses lost a week's pay and then had to have the cost of health insurance taken out of their next pay, according to VanBramer.

Alex Neary, co-chairwoman of the bargaining committee, said Tuesday that the union's one-day strike in October did not move the hospital to be more receptive to the union's key issues, including what it sees as inadequate staffing.

"This is completely unacceptable," she said in a statement. "It is why today nurses have sent a clear message to BMC: Negotiate a fair contract that protects our patients."

In a letter sent Jan. 8 to BMC's registered nurses, a hospital official said recent negotiations had shown progress, an assessment that the union disputes.

"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 ... to authorize a second strike," she wrote in the letter.

During the first week in October, there were rallies and pickets outside the Pittsfield hospital, under sunny daytime skies.

The new vote comes a week after the most recent bargaining session for a contract covering roughly 800 RNs at the hospital and satellite operations elsewhere in Pittsfield and in North Adams.

Nurses have continued to work under most terms of the old agreement.

The next bargaining session between the hospital and the nurses is set for Jan. 25.

Nurses rejected the hospital's "last best" contract offer in late May. A key issue for nurses is staffing. The union is asking that the hospital agree not to assign patients to "charge" nurses who oversee units, allowing them to help other nurses when the number of patients on their shifts mounts.

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


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