Protesters lined the narrow sidewalk along Hospital Avenue to chant to toward the BMC campus.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — While much of the action has been taking place in Pittsfield, the registered nurses locked out by Berkshire Medical Center made a point of showing on Thursday that North Adams is affected, too.
Nearly 100 members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association and their supporters lined the sidewalk along Hospital Avenue chanting to the police and security presence blocking the driveway to BMC's North County campus.
"Hey hey, ho ho, unsafe staffing's got to go!" "If we're out here, something is wrong in there!"
The local chapter of the MNA took to the picket line on Tuesday after a year of contract negotiations hit a wall over what the nurses say are safe staffing issues. When the one-day strike ended Wednesday morning at 7, Berkshire Medical Center made good on its promise to lock out the 800 nurses for another four days because of contract obligations to temporary nurses. The contracted nurses will be doing 12-hour shifts until the union nurses can re-enter the premises on Sunday.
The numbers of nurses affected in North Adams is much smaller. The former hospital closed three years ago and BMC's purchase of the property has brought back limited services in emergency, elective surgery, doctors' practices and diagnostics.
Nurse Danielle Knutson, who splits her time between the two cities, said she'd been concerned that the number of nurses continuing to picket on Hospital Avenue had dwindled. Maybe, she thought, they should stop.
"We decided if we cut back our picket times, how does that look to the community? This community that the hospital shut their doors on? We did not find it an acceptable thing to do," she said. "We are here no matter how small our numbers are. North County deserves our support. We are here for you and we will fight for you."
MNA's efforts have support here, where the century-old hospital's closure still stings. Members of the North County Cares Coalition held signs alongside the nurses and cheered as Knutson called for safe care for all patients and "to restore full services to North County."
Coalition co-Chairman Richard Dassatti described the nurses as "speaking truth to power."
"The fact that Berkshire Health Systems doesn't want to hear from you, it's no suprise to me and to the people of North County Cares Coalition because they won't listen to us," he said, adding it's time for elected officials to start speaking up.
He read a letter drafted for the news media and the area's elected officials from local to federal offices, calling on them to side with the nurses and patients over the "oligarchy" that's been portraying the nurses as elite and greedy.
Fellow Chairman James Lipa complimented the nurses on the work they do, and assured them it was bad management and not them that caused the demise of North Adams Regional.
"You should never feel you didn't do enough to keep the hospital open," he said. "You did more than enough."
Coalition member Rachel Branch gave a short but emotional speech. "You win standing up!" she cried to applause.
The MNA has more recently been pointing fingers at BMC's $47 million in profits and the millions in take-home pay of its top administrators as funding that could go to hiring more nurses to ensure higher staffing levels.
"We're shining a light on BMC not providing what the community needs to have safe care for all patients at all times," said Knutson.
Hospital officials, however, say the profit line doesn't give a full picture of Berkshire Health System's financial obligations, including $21 million in investments in the North Adams campus since acquiring it in 2014, technology, renovations, and information technology infrastructure.
"On average we spend $35 [million] to $45 million annually in capital improvements, such as the construction of the BMC Cancer Center, which was an over $30 million investment in state-of-the-art cancer care," BMC spokesman Michael Leary wrote. "Our capital budget for the just-started fiscal year is $31 million."
Neither, he said, is the $47 million profit accurate. BHS also has other entities such as Fairview Hospital, the visiting nurses and physician practices that have to considered in the broader financial picture.
"For the fiscal year they are citing, on a consolidated basis, Berkshire Health Systems had a 3.5 percent operating margin, and $31.9 million in 'profit,'" he wrote. "This includes losses for our physician practice groups totaling over $18 million."
Jason LaForest, a City Council candidate who is a nurse at Williamstown Commons, said the "people at the top" have been trying to turn the country against nurses and other workers.
"We work harder than anyone can possibly imagine ... here you are fighting for patients' rights," he said. "All you're asking for is a few more staff members to make sure we can take care of our patients safely, competently in all of the moments of their lives."
He earned cheers as pointed to security personnel watching from the hill above.
"They have built up a little army to the protct them from nurses whose only job is to care," he joked. "As if we're going to storm the Bastille with flames and torches and pitchforks. It's just ludicrous."
Also in attendance was City Council candidate Clarise Vanderburgh and candidate for the Democratic nomination for state representative, Kevin Towle. Towle said he'd been walking the picket line in Pittsfield and left the group with a poem that gave him solace in tough time, William Henley's "Out Of The Night That Covers Me."
"Your community stands with you and together we are going to put management on notice that we will no longer stand for profit before people and greed before patients," he declared.
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