PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The nurses at Berkshire Medical Center have taken the second step toward a strike.
The Massachusetts Nursing Association filed a notification to end the existing agreement. The contract currently in place prohibits a strike and while the contract had an expiration date of September 2016, the duration clauses continued it unless a 30-day notice from either side was made or a new agreement was signed.
"While we are disappointed that the union has moved one step closer to a strike, we look forward to meeting again with the union on Aug. 7, with hopes of reaching an agreement," Berkshire Health Systems Vice President of Human Resources Arthur Milano said.
"BMC has offered a fair and generous package, which includes 10 percent salary increases over three years, the best health benefit program in the region, and a staffing plan that more formally engages the union nurses in decision-making."
Last Wednesday, the local nurses voted to give the bargaining committee the authority to call a strike. That would require giving the hospital a 10-day notice. Now with the notice to end the existing contract, a strike can be called as early as Sept. 1.
"In order for the nurses in Pittsfield to call and go out on strike, they have to give this 30-day notice," MNA spokesman Joe Markman said, calling it a "procedural issue."
"But there is still no strike date set."
The two sides returned to the bargaining table on Tuesday for the first time since the strike authorization vote. Then, hospital officials had asked the question about the 30-day notice to clear up any confusion on the timing. Toward the end of the bargaining session, the MNA filed the notification. The 30-day notice is somewhat of a unique piece added into the prior contract.
Should one be called, hospital officials have plans in place to bring in replacement nurses. The union is authorized to call a one-day strike, but hospital officials say there'd be four additional days of work stoppage for the union nurses. The replacement nurses would have a minimum five-day commitment.
"We are happy we are still at the bargaining table and talking and we hope to come to an agreement. And they are moving in the direction of a strike," Milano said.
The hospital had already given what it called its "best and final offer," which the union rejected by an overwhelming vote. Milano says it is still a "fair deal" and remains on the table. The union, however, is pushing for changes regarding staffing.
"Our key issues remain: Safe nurse staffing that protects patient care and affordable, quality health insurance. We have made numerous proposals for nearly a year to try and reach an agreement," read a statement issued by the MNA's local bargaining committee on Tuesday.
"Last month, we heard specific concerns from management about why they are reluctant to agree to safe staffing language in our contract. In response, we made significant revisions to our proposals. For example, we have proposed that BMC not worsen nurse staffing and that charge nurses should have no or limited patient assignments (depending on time of day). Charge nurses should be able to manage the flow of patients in their units, be on hand to assist less experienced nurses with more complex cases and pick up patient assignments when nurses are overburdened. We also made a proposal that in the future management would post and recruit to fill such positions that are necessary for the hospital to meet its contractual and regulatory obligations relating to RNs."
Milano said much of what the union is asking are things that are "very difficult to next to impossible" to do from an administrative standpoint. Hospital officials maintain that the staffing push is part of a statewide agenda and not in response to local conditions.
"We know by their own admission that they have a statewide initiative on the ballot in 2018 for minimum staffing," Milano said. "They want this language and ratios in any contract they can get."
BMC could be the third hospital in the state to go out on strike - following Baystate Franklin Medical Center and Tufts Medical Center.
Berkshire Medical Center officials voiced concern that the union could be looking to launch simultaneous one-day strikes at all three hospitals, exhausting the supply of replacement nurses.
Hospital officials repeatedly said that the MNA's push to set staffing levels ties the hands of the administration when it comes to hiring and staffing the building. The union, however, says the staffing levels are needed because previously there were too many occasions when the administration hadn't been staffing the units appropriately.
But the two sides are still talking. They returned to the bargaining table after the nurses voted to reject the hospital's offer and they returned again just a few days after the strike authorization vote.
"'We're still willing to talk," Milano said.
On Aug. 7, the two sides return again. Hospital officials are hoping the union will circle back and reconsider the offer on the table and the union has put forth options that it hopes the hospital will consider. The negotiations have been helped along by a federal mediator.
"I think the nurses are going in hopeful on Monday," Markman said.
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