Retired Nurse Carla Skidmore and her husband, Bob Skidmore, attended the vigil in support of the union.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The nurses will be silent on Tuesday morning when they walk off the job and head to the picket lines.
But, on Monday night, the nurses were filled with songs and speeches as it held a vigil outside of Berkshire Medical Center prior to the start of the strike.
"This is not a happy time for us. It is sad, a little scary for nurses who have never been through this before and probably scary again for the nurses who have been through this," said Amber VanBramer, a member of the local chapter of the Massachusetts Nurses Association's bargaining committee.
The nurses are going on strike after a year of trying to negotiate a new contract. Their main issue is staffing levels. The union says the hospital does not have enough nurses per shift to ensure patient safety. It has been attempting to bargain guarantees for more nurses on the floors. The union has also raised concerns over the administration's health insurance offer.
And the negotiations have come to a standstill. Ten days ago, the bargaining committee issued the order for a one-day strike. That, however, will be followed by four days of lockout from the hospital.
"Twenty years ago, when I first started here I would have never wanted anything other than to work at Berkshire Medical Center. Over the last 10 years, things have changed. It has been getting tougher and tougher. It is an atmosphere of negativity," said Marie Geary, who works with inpatients in the psychology department.
"It really hurts. When I left my job today, I left with a heavy heart. Let's hope this moves them along."
The hospital's administration isn't happy about the strike either.
"I would never have dreamed this would happen," said President David Phelps. "I worry about the scars ... it is an emotional time."
Berkshire Medical Center has opposed the union's pushes, first for specific staffing ratios embedded into the contract and then second for freeing up charge nurses to manage floors. The administration said those proposals pigeonhole the hospital into handling staffing a certain way. It prefers to have more flexibility in how it handles patient care, saying it provides a team approach to care that goes beyond just registered nurses.
"Staffing is critical to how we run a hospital but it is more than just a number," said Chief Operating Officer Diane Kelly.
The hospital put forth an idea of a staffing committee to get the nurses input on staffing decisions instead. But, the union said since the staffing committee is only advisory, it won't work.
Both sides have moved their positions slightly toward each other over time, but both side's animosity toward each other has also grown. The administration says the nurses are pushing the staffing issue as part of a statewide agenda, and not in reaction to local concerns. The hospital believes in its "last and final" offer, which the nurses rejected. The nurses have been critical of the administration, saying it isn't listening to the concerns. Both sides have filed unfair labor practice complaints against the other.
On Monday, the night before the nurses walk out, dozens of supporters and union members gathered in vigil. They shared stories, sang union folk songs, and held candles in unity.
"I wish we didn't have to be here tonight. I wish the hospital had bargained in better faith with you and listened to what you as nurses know you need. But since that doesn't appear to change right now, please know that all of us at the labor council has your back and we will stand up for you," said Liz Morrison of the Central Berkshire Labor Council.
Other unions made a presence at the vigil as well, including the American Federation of Teachers, SEIU 509, Berkshire Professional Association, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the Steel Workers, and the Pittsfield Fire Department International Association of Fire Fighters Union Local 2647.
The union members and supporters sang folk songs along with the Hoping Machine.
Retired pastor Bob Skidmore told the crowd that it was two years ago when he raised issued of patient care to the hospital's administration. But, he didn't get a solution. He said his complaints were ignored.
"The nursing staff that was there was incredibly good and I respect them greatly for that. But son of a gun, you've got so many other people with different conditions to take care of. It is just too much of a strain on you guys," Skidmore said.
While Skidmore is an engineer by trade, he knows a bit about nursing through his wife of 58 years - Carla. Carla Skidmore said when she retired in 2003, the staffing levels were not up to par and have since gotten worse.
"You don't have the staff. You don't have the time to do what you want to do," she said.
Others praised the union. Tracy Cameron said she didn't know much about the union when she first started, she just paid her dues and kept quiet. But, recently she ended up joining the bargaining committee and "I cannot tell you how much my eyes have been opened," Cameron said.
Barbara Connor echoed similar sentiments.
"In December when I just got on the bargaining committee, I never thought we'd be here right now. But it has been a lot of commitment, a lot of hard work, and I appreciate the dedication the nurses of Berkshire Medical Center have to their patients," Connor said.
The union was also joined with some political support. Kevin Towle is running for the 1st Berkshire Massachusetts House of Representative Seat and encouraged the nurses not to back down. Jason LaForest is running for North Adams City Council and encouraged the nurses to keep their desire to care for their patients at the forefront.
"We can tell you what happens when weak managers run a hospital. You are here for all of the right reasons. Please don't stop the fight for safe patient care and especially don't stop it now since so many residents of North Adams, and all of Berkshire County, are coming here for their care," LaForest said.
On Wednesday morning, the nurses will dress in scrubs and attempt to return to work. But, hospital officials have already contracted with replacement nurses for five days and aren't planning on letting them back in.
"We are going to try to go back to work because that's what we want to do. We want to be inside taking care of our patients and not out here asking to take care of our patients," VanBramer said.
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