Then, as now, '81 strike at BMC painful, but 'it made us stronger'

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PITTSFIELD — It was midafternoon Tuesday, the sun hot, and Alexandra Neary, Carol Frechette and Kathy Cimini were catching up on a Pittsfield sidewalk.

As old friends are wont to do, up and down North Street.

They stood in a commotion outside Berkshire Medical Center — a place they know intimately, from more than a century of work inside as registered nurses.

Collectively, of course.

But they know this sidewalk, too. And not just because it has been the stage for a one-day strike and four-day lockout that runs through 7 a.m. Sunday.

In 1981, all three women marched here over the course of a tough, 69-day strike by nurses — the first of its kind in Berkshire County and only the second time nurses had walked off jobs in a Massachusetts hospital.

ABC's "World News Tonight" came to tell their story, in a fractious year for labor in the U.S. In the weeks after 410 nurses struck in Pittsfield, President Ronald Reagan battled — and broke — the air traffic controllers union. More than 1 in 5 Americans belonged to unions then — double the percentage today.

Nurses wanted a 33 percent raise per year, at least at first, in a proposal few would venture in today's labor-management climate.

But the nurses' bargaining committee, co-led by Neary — fresh out of nursing school and working her first hospital job — felt disrespected.

"Garbagemen made more than we did," Frechette said. "We laughed at that."

But they didn't find it funny. Nurses at the time started at $6.64 an hour and maxed out at $7.52 an hour in Pittsfield. Union truck drivers were making $13.

"Look how far we've come," Frechette said.

In the game

Neary is hardly on the sidelines. She remains co-chairwoman of the bargaining committee, a central player in negotiations 36 years after she and her 1981 co-chairman, William E. Morrison, steered their way to a deal that won significant raises for nurses as well as their first dental plan.

Neary recalled the day the breakthrough came. She and others were holed up Oct. 1, 1981, at the Holiday Inn in Lenox when they reached contract terms with the hospital, aided by a federal mediator.

In the end, the sides split the difference on proposals.

Neary rushed to the American Legion hall on Wendell Avenue, where strikers had a meeting in progress. "We went in and declared the strike was over," she said.

"It was a crazy scene," said Cimini, who was there as well. Other members of the bargaining committee were Jacqueline Roy, Diana Bissell, Dian Litster and Grace Germanowski.

As Cimini stood on the picket line this week, those days didn't seem so far away.

"It was an awesome experience for me," she said of the 1981 strike. "It was a togetherness and camaraderie that you don't feel other than at a time like this. There was a huge excitement around it."

Cimini has been sharing tales of the 1981 strike with other nurses. She admits that not all of them are interested, but she believes the 1981 strike helped galvanize members of the local, forging ties that lasted for years and carried the union through rough patches.

All three women believe the impact of that strike went beyond pay and benefits.

"It made us stronger. As women, it gave us a voice in our vocation," Frechette said as car horns blared along North Street, pickets circled past, and police and security officials looked on.

"We went out for so long and really got to know each other," Neary said.

Frechette started nodding, then said that, despite her youth, Neary emerged as a leader for that time — and this as well.

"We respected her because she knew her stuff," Frechette said of her friend.

Neary went one day and cleaned out space in The Friendship, a popular bar off Seymour Street that loaned nurses a strike headquarters. She swept and put a plant outside.

Though the strike dragged on, and though some nurses crossed the picket line to continue working, Neary recalls that rank-and-file nurses held together, not pressuring negotiators to settle. Months went by without paychecks.

"We had committees for everything," Neary said. "We were in tune with knowing that people were out of work and what that hardship means."

Call of sisterhood

It was a full decade since the publication of the book "Sisterhood is Powerful," but those gains were still being notched in Pittsfield, the women recalled. Nurses were not, they said, the "handmaids" many thought them to be.

One point of dispute in their demand for dental insurance was a claim that most were covered already by their husbands' policies.

"It was women coming into power," Frechette said.

A demand for dignity and respect threaded through the negotiations, the women said.

"Because we weren't looked at with dignity and respect back then," Neary said.

To be sure, money helps provide that. The union dropped its wage demands to 16.5 percent increases in each of two years of a contract. Its lead negotiator was Shirley B. Astle of Dalton, a former BMC nurse who had gone to work for the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

The union wanted to get nurses up to $10 an hour — and only a 33 percent increase would achieve that, when they reached the maximum pay step.

The hospital, then led by Henry E. Moran, was offering 9 percent increases in each of two years — and talks bogged down for weeks. The hospital upped that to 11 percent, but nurses rejected the offer by a 5-1 margin.

Out on the street, nurses were rallying community support, in a city still home to General Electric and an array of unions.

"At that time, this was a union town," Frechette said. Because physicians tended to work independently of the hospital then, many also offered support.

But not everyone was on board. Walkie-talkies in use on the picket line used a common CB-radio channel.

"Several unpleasant transmissions were said to have been directed at the nurses from outside sources," The Eagle reported July 27, 1981.

Feeling pinched by lost revenues, with the census about half its normal number, the hospital laid off 31 workers in late August.

With the strike a few weeks old, Moran, the hospital's president, pressed for a settlement, saying emotions were running high. "Everybody is so much on edge, it's a disaster," he said.

He waited more than another month to lead his team to concessions.

Community support

Out on the sidewalk this week, the women still recalled with fondness the backing of Frank Goldwitz, a North Street shopkeeper who put a bucket in front to raise money for the strikers, since many faced financial hardships. Goldwitz called the nurses "angels of God" and gave $200 a day to the strike fund.

He hired nurses at this store, brought doughnuts to picket lines and bought radio spots backing nurses. He said he wanted to pay back the profession for caring for three sons who once needed medical care.

"If you can't help your fellow human beings when you're able, then life isn't worth living," he told The Eagle.

"He just loved us and supported us," Cimini said of Goldwitz.

"The support in 1981 was tremendous," Neary recalled. "Like it is here," she added, gesturing at a table of food paid for by a local business, Berkshire Money Management.

They got so much help that when the strike was over, they were able to bank away money.

Today, the $10,000 that Pittsfield nurses have in a strike fund managed by the union is largely the fruit of dividends on money put aside for the 1981 walkout.

"We never touched that money," Neary said.

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


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