Our Opinion: Nurses, BMC should settle and begin healing process

It's disappointing that the registered nurses at Berkshire Medical Center have chosen to strike again on June 18 as the cancellation of the planned walkout in February suggested that an agreement could be reached soon. This will mean more lost wages for nurses and more costs for BMC, which must hire nurses for five days under the terms of its contract with the company that provides replacement nurses.

Nonetheless there is no cause for despair or recrimination. Two other contract agreements have been reached in the state between nurses and management, including one settled only two weeks ago, and it is possible to see a road forward in which the dispute between BMC and nurses of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) can be resolved in ways that both sides can live with (Eagle, June 6).

Staffing issues are at the core of the dispute, with the RNs asserting that the hospital is understaffed and the administration countering that staffing is sufficient and it needs flexibility in addressing patient needs (Eagle, June 6). The harsh words exchanged between representatives of the two parties on The Eagle's letters to the editor page in recent weeks indicated that negotiations seen as promising in February were breaking down. When the nurses announced their one-day walkout beginning at 7 a.m. June 18, the hospital withdrew its contract offer from the table.

On May 23, the registered nurses of the Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, represented by the MNA, reached a five-year agreement with management. The nurses in Greenfield also conducted two one-day walkouts in a dispute that was centered around staffing, along with salaries and retirement benefits.

It has become gradually apparent since the nurses and Berkshire Medical Center headed down this road back in September of 2016 that the duties of the "charge nurse" are key to the dispute. The nurses have described the charge nurse as a team leader who serves as a liaison to administrators, lends his or her experience to other nurses when needed, and is poised to react to an emergency. The charge nurse's duties are so many and so critical, say the nurses, that he or she should not have a full assignment, which they maintain management will not accept.

The contract agreement at Baystate Franklin deals specifically with the role of the charge nurse. According to the MNA, a charge nurse at that hospital will be assigned on a daily basis to the medical/surgical/telemetry units with no patient assignments at the start of the shift. After two hours, the charge nurse may take on two patient assignments in the event of unplanned circumstances. "In those circumstances, management will make all efforts to make available an RN who can take the transfer of the charge nurse's patient assignment," according to the contract language.

This middle ground obviously satisfied both the nurses and Baystate Franklin management. Perhaps this wording on the charge nurse's duties will prove applicable to a resolution at BMC.

A dispute between MNA nurses and Tufts Medical Center over issues similar to those in Greenfield and at BMC was resolved in December of last year. Interestingly, the nurses said that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh's offer to serve as a mediator was helpful even though he did not actually end up doing so. The mayor did invite the parties to meet at City Hall and the co-chairwoman of the nurses' negotiating team told reporters that the "karma of the new space" brought about a better atmosphere for negotiations. Perhaps the local parties should meet next at Pittsfield City Hall. Whatever might help is worth a shot.

The last of the three remaining contract disputes come as the November elections containing a statewide ballot initiative on nurse staffing move closer. The referendum as worded contains specifics about staffing requirements in a wide variety of instances but there doesn't appear to be any accounting for the differences in staffing between, for example, Massachusetts General Hospital and a rural community hospital. Without that distinction, community hospitals could face considerable cost burdens in meeting those requirements. The blunt instrument that is a referendum question is not always the best tool to settle complex issues.

While all parties at both Baystate Franklin and Tufts Medical Center applied their particular spin to the outcome of the contract talks there were no recriminations by anyone, which is what really matters. When this dispute is settled locally, nurses and BMC management will have to work together in the best interests of the community and patients. The aforementioned nurse from the Tufts negotiating team said she looked forward to starting the "healing process." The sooner a contract can be reached between BMC nurses and management, the sooner that process can begin in the Berkshires.


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