Hospital employees will appeal to RNs to accept contract offer

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PITTSFIELD — Tired of watching an acrimonious labor-management dispute from the sidelines, a group of Berkshire Medical Center employees will jump in Monday, hoping their voices can make a difference.

A week before registered nurses with the Massachusetts Nurses Association set up pickets during a second strike against the Pittsfield hospital, employees who are not part of the contract talks will gather on one of the same streets.

Citing internal discord and financial risks to the institution, three longtime employees hope to rally co-workers with a call for labor peace. They anticipate blowback that could widen workplace divisions.

"This affects us all, and we're all a team," said Tonya Burns of Savoy, a medical assistant in wound care and 17-year BMC employee. "There's this underlying tension. We need a resolution."

A petition that began to circulate Friday says BMC employees worry that the scheduled June 18 strike will hurt the hospital. "We do not support the MNA's decision to strike, and ask for acceptance (of) a fair and reasonable contract," the petition reads.

Organizers believe that their views on what's best for the hospital and community have been overlooked.

The hospital and representatives of its roughly 800 RNs have held 42 bargaining sessions on a new contract since September 2016. Nurses walked out for one day Oct. 3. The local union issued a second strike notice June 4, after another day of inconclusive talks.

As in October, the one-day strike June 18 will prompt the hospital to bring in replacement nurses for five days. In all, the strike and four-day lockout will cost $3 million to $4 million, the hospital says, the same expense incurred last year.

"We don't want them to get on the plane," Burns said of replacement nurses. "We want our nurses to stay on the job."

At 11:30 a.m. Monday, Burns will join fellow hospital employees Becky Armstrong and Scott Emerson on North Street near the Bishop Clapp Building.

Along with taking a group photo, participants will be invited to add their names to the nearly 100 signatures gathered on the one day the petition circulated this week.

"We used to be a family, a real team," said Emerson, a 36-year hospital orderly. Rancor between RNs and the hospital leaves that in jeopardy, he said. "It's putting that wedge in there."

Efforts Saturday to reach a spokesman for the MNA were not successful. Organizers plan to present the petition to the union.

In an interview this week, Amber VanBramer, a registered nurse and member of the MNA's local bargaining committee, said nurses remain committed to their goals in bargaining. The union recently held a series of meetings with members to brief them on contract talks.

A year ago, RNs overwhelmingly rejected what BMC had termed its best offer. They reaffirmed that stance this winter when authorizing a second strike call.

Though the petition asks nurses to accept the hospital's offer, the latest BMC contract proposal was withdrawn this week when the union issued its strike notice. The offer on the table now is the one extended Feb. 22.

Gone is a provision to "retain existing staffing grids through September 2021" and to hire the equivalent of 5.4 full-time nurses to reduce the number of times "charge" nurses are required to take on patient assignments.

Both elements were considered to be concessions by the hospital.

This week, the hospital said it needed to redirect financial resources contained in its most recent offer in light of a looming second strike.

Independent action

Organizers of Monday's event call their drive a grass-roots effort and say they have not been encouraged by management. They used their free time to seek signatures Friday and will gather Monday, during a lunch break.

"I'm very careful about bringing it up," said Emerson, a 56-year-old Pittsfield resident, when asked whether the effort had been encouraged by management.

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All three organizers deny that the petition is backed by BMC. They say they have closely followed progress on a new contract for RNs. Armstrong said she attended a community meeting called by the union last year. All follow the hospital's posts on bmcnurses.com.

"They won't even talk to us about it," Burns said of her managers. "I don't know what the backlash will be from the hospital."

Depending on the turnout Monday, some BMC employees might be reluctant to stand for a group photo, said Armstrong, a 30-year BMC employee who lives in southern Vermont and is coordinator of ambulatory services.

Armstrong said some co-workers told her they supported the petition's message, but were leery of taking a stand against the union.

"It wasn't as easy as I thought," she said of collecting signatures. "This has offered an opportunity for people to talk, which has been powerful and enlightening. There are 100 people who are really sticking their necks out here."

Armstrong said she voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary and considers herself a progressive.

"I'm not anti-labor. I'm pro-reasonable labor," she said. "I've asked nurses to explain to me their side, and I just don't get it. This has gone too far."

Armstrong added: "I respect them all very much for the talent they have. I know I couldn't do what they do. But that doesn't mean the sky's the limit."

The three acknowledge that the petition drive might add to tensions within the hospital.

Burns said the petition could bring repercussions, but she felt a need to act.

"I'm tired of this and I want it over," she said of the labor dispute. "I want us to start functioning as a team again. I have a right to speak my opinion."

Pride in healing

Though the petition contains a pointed message to the MNA, Burns said she looks up to the registered nurses and is hoping to be one herself. She has begun studies, at age 44, to train as an RN.

"I don't want it to come across that I'm against the nurses, because I'm not," Burns said. "The one thing I want is to be a registered nurse. There is great pride in that. You're a healer and a caregiver. It just needs to be resolved.

"You're trying to listen to both sides and be objective," Burns said of the dispute. But over time, she has become focused on the consequences and believes that the hospital's offer is fair.

"There's dislocation, discord and hostilities," she said.

Emerson and Armstrong said they are concerned about the impact of strike costs on the hospital.

"This is going to hit our bottom line somewhere," Armstrong said. "It's money being spent for no good reason, in my mind."

Emerson said he is watching a likely November ballot question in Massachusetts that would set staffing minimums for nurses, a measure shaped by the MNA. Though the ballot question would not allow hospitals to pay for increased RN staffing through other cuts, Emerson said he is concerned about a ripple effect on other hospital jobs.

Burns said she endured two layoffs in the health care field, once at the former North Adams Regional Hospital and once at BMC. Armstrong has been through one layoff.

"We don't want people to lose their jobs," Emerson said. "That's what worries me the most. There's no more jobs out there."

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


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