BMC Nurses Strike; Picket Hospital
The local chapter of the Massachusetts Nursing Association took to the picket line on Tuesday after a year of contract negotiations have seemingly hit a wall. The union and supporters gathered just outside of the property line, forming two lines and holding signs, awaiting the nurses ending their shift at 7 a.m. to walk through.
Just short of 800 employees of the county's largest employer stopped going to work and spent the day picketing.
"This type of action isn't easy for anyone. It certainly isn't easy for us to be away from our patients. We want to be with them, caring for them. The people of Berkshire County depend on us," said Mark Brodeur, who serves on the local chapter's bargaining committee.
Inside the hospital, temporary nurses took the place of those on strike. The unionized nurses say they'll be attempting to return to work Wednesday morning when their one-day strike comes to an end, but the hospital is in a contract with U.S. Nursing Corp. for five days and plans to lock the union out for another four days.
Throughout the day, the nurses rallied support from passing vehicles, sang union songs, and heard speeching from patients, nurses, and supporters. The nurses stuck to a single message: they're out there to fight for increased staffing in the hospital.
"As things become more difficult, nurses pick up the slack. It is getting to the point when we are saying we can't do that anymore and the patient pays the price," Brodeur said.
The issue has been a key talking point across the state and has led to testy contract negotiations. Two other hospitals had also gone on strike — Baystate Franklin and Tufts — with staffing being the talking point. Next November, the issue will go to a ballot question.
BMC's administration has accused the union of holding the strike as part of furthering that agenda, but the nurses outside of the hospital on Tuesday said it is an issue that has been brewing for a long time.
"We've been fighting for safe staffing for 20 years, every day we fight for safe staffing. This is not just coming out during contract negotiations. This is when we fight to get it in our contract," said Donna Stern, who has been fighting the same battle at Baystate Franklin Medical Center.
The nurses at BMC say the units have been chronically understaffed and have documented more than 400 instances in which they've felt that the staffing levels jeopardized patient care. They say more and more the nurses are expected to take on larger workloads and take extra shifts.
"As we are asked to do more and more with less, the patients are the ones that pay that price," Brodeur said.
Tyler Gauvette said he sees his mother taking on extra shifts often because of shortages.
"I see my mother going to work at 6:30 in the morning and I go to work at 3:30 expecting her to be home because she gets out at 3. But I come home at 8 o'clock and she's still not home because we lack the safe staffing and she has to compensate for that," he said.
The union attempted to get required staffing levels into the new contract. The contract expired last September and the MNA wants language added guaranteeing certain staffing parameters. But, the hospital administration had pushed back on that and presented a committee plan that doesn't lock the hospital into certain restrictions on staffing but still allows the nurses a voice.
But, it didn't guarantee those recommendations from the nurses would get put into practice.
The hospital put that committee into the final contract offer — it wasn't on the table to begin with — but that was rejected by the nurses in May. That offer also included a 10 percent pay raise over three years consisting of general wage increases of 1 percent in year one and two and 2 percent in year three, step increases of 2 percent, and lump sum of 2 percent for those at the top of the scale. The lump sum of the raises is retroactive if the agreement is reached by the end of that month. It also includes increasing the evening and night differential premiums.
But the nurses told everybody in the area on Tuesday that it isn't about money. It is about the staffing levels.
City Council Vice President John Krol supports the nurses and said strike isn't about an impasse in a contract, it is a fight for the community and the patients that go into that hospital every day.
"This is not about just a union versus an administration. It is not about an impasse. This is about my mother and your mother, my father and your father, my brother and your brothers, my sisters and your sisters, my children and your children, my grandchildren one day and your grandchildren. That is what this is about here at Berkshire Medical Center," Krol said.
He praised the nurses for "a sacrifice you are making personally and together for the betterment of the community." He took the business phrase "no margin, no mission" and flipped it on its head.
"There is a margin, we know there is a profit margin. Are you focused on the profit margin or are you focused on the mission? That is the question," Krol said. "If we are about the mission, the dollars that come into Berkshire Medical Center are not just the hospitals, they are our dollars. They are the dollars we pay for premiums to private health insurance companies that pay for the services you provide. They are the taxpayer dollars that we pay for Medicaid and Medicare that pay for the services you provide. It is not the hospitals, it is ours."
The nurses painted the hospital administration as greedy and feeding off of its workers while putting the community members at risk.
"You are fighting against the mindset of profits over people," Drew Herzig of the activist group Indivisible Pittsfield said.
Eric Bauer with Jobs with Justice, a collective of labor groups in Western Massachusetts, claimed the top executives were taking home more than a million dollars in salary collectively while the nurses are the ones who are making BMC a special place to go as a patient.
"I would want to be remembered as a nurse at Berkshire Medical Center, someone who gives loves. Someone who makes my patients feel valued, someone who puts love into the world as opposed to someone who profits on the backs of the people who do that," he said.
Brodeur accused the organization of spending the money coming into the hospital outside of the community.
"It is our hospital, too. It is not only yours. It is not only management. It is not the board members. It is the community's hospital and I would like to be proud of that," Roth said.
Bill Schmick, a portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management, echoed those sentiments. He even donated breakfast and lunch to the striking nurses but called that "feeble" compared to what they've done for him.
"I have such a debt to return to you nurses. Some of you may recognize me. I've been in the hospital four times in the last two years — two knees replaced, prostate cancer, and a serious infection. The nurses were there for me. I swear you saved my life," Schmick said.
And he sees the nurses outside of the hospital, too, some of them are his clients.
"I see the physical condition you are in — the dark circles under your eyes, the way your foot taps, the way your nails are on the desk. I recognize those things, that's called overwork. It's called stress," Schmick said.
David Pope said it was a nurse who reviewed his medical records and canceled an appointment the neurologist made for an MRI because it would have been risky. He thanked them for that.
Brodeur said the local nurses care for these patients both in the hospital and in the community. They get to know them so well that they can detect even the slightest change in behavior. But that is getting increasingly hard when nurses aren't able to spend as much time with each patient, he said.
Thatcher Kent from the Berkshire County Workers Benefit Council said that type of care makes everybody better. His organization is an association of low-income workers in the county and Kent said low-income workers tend to have more medical problems. That's why he rallied in support of the nurses.
"When nurses are treated fairly, low-income workers get better care. That's why patients need to stand together and do stand together," Kent said.
The strike also gained some political support. Sherwood Guernsey of the Berkshire Brigades, the organizational arm of the county's Democratic Party, joined the fight.
"It takes guts. It takes standing up. Standing up is what this country has to do a lot of right now for what is being taken away from us," Guernsey said, adding that labor across the country is under attack. "You are part of a big struggle, stay there. We're with you and the Democratic party is with you."
While Helen Moon, who is running for City Council, said the strike is more than a political issue.
"The administration is saying this is a statewide political agenda. And it is. There is going to be a statewide ballot initiative, hopefully for 2018, and people are working very hard to get that. But when 800 people in this community stand up and say no, we need more help, this is not just a political issue. This is a community issue," Moon said.
The strike likely won't directly lead to a contract resolution. But, it is one of the tools the union has to up the pressure on the administration. At Baystate Franklin, that hasn't happened yet.
"We went on strike, we were locked out, and we're still together. We're still fighting, just like you. We are not going to stop fighting until we ultimately get what we deserve and our patients deserve," Stern said.
But collectively, the nurses and advocates are raising their voices.
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