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BMC Files Unfair Labor Practice Complaint Against Nursing Union

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The hospital has fired back at the MNA with its own complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.
Berkshire Health Systems is alleging that the nurses' union is not bargaining in good faith and is "surface bargaining" — a term used to describe negotiating without trying to actually reach a settlement.
The local chapter of the Massachusetts Nursing Association and Berkshire Medical Center's administration has been hit a gridlock in negotiations after nearly a year of sessions. 
"We have met with the union nearly 30 times over the past 12 months," said Berkshire Health Systems Vice President for Human Resources Arthur Milano. "It has become increasingly clear in recent weeks that the MNA is now only going through the motions of negotiations to create the appearance that it is bargaining in good faith."
The hospital accuses the nurses of essentially rewording and resubmitting the same demands, giving the appearance of moving toward an agreement but not addressing the hospital's concerns.
"We went seven months and saw almost no changes," Milano said, but rather three months of submitting the same exact proposal.
The primary issue between the sides is staffing. The union had pushed for specific staffing ratios in the contract, a move that it believed would guarantee greater staffing levels by creating a grievance process if those ratios were broken. The hospital rejected that proposal, saying it would restrict the administration's flexibility in making determinations. The hospital says it uses a team approach to providing care, meaning the staffing decisions include practitioners of other disciplines outside of registered nurses.
Milano said the next step from the MNA was a staffing grievance process through an arbitrator, which isn't much different from the specific ratios. And now, the most recent, is proposing that charge nurses not be assigned patients and can manage floors -- a move the hospital says still locks the administration into certain staffing parameters that aren't feasible administratively. 
Hospital officials say neither of the three proposals address the need to have flexibility in its staffing. Instead, the hospital had put forth a plan to create a staffing committee consisting of nurses, the union, and the administration to review data and make recommendations on changes to staffing plans.
That proposal wasn't on the table when contract negotiations began but were added into the hospital's "best and final" offer in May.
"The hospital has made numerous changes in the proposal.  We haven't seen similar movement on the MNA front," Milano said.
The nurses rejected the best and final offer and shortly after authorized the bargaining committee to call a strike if it deems one is needed. The hospital believes the MNA is using a "strike-oriented bargaining strategy to advance its political goals rather than to reach a fair and reasonable nurse's contract."
The timing of the Berkshire Health System's complaint comes a day after the attorney general's office certified a ballot question for the November 2018 election that would make certain staffing levels law. Berkshire Health Systems has repeatedly accused the union of pushing the staffing language as part of that statewide push and not in response to local concerns.
Union spokesman Joe Markman, however, completely rejects the hospital's claims and expects the National Labor Relations Board to do the same.
"This charge is completely unfounded. Unlike the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, which is clearly providing Berkshire Medical Center with industry talking points, MNA nurses approach bargaining as a local issue. BMC nurses have proposed local solutions to patient-care concerns they are experiencing at their hospital," Markman said.
"Nurses have bargained in good faith the entire time and have made numerous revisions to their proposals. BMC nurses have patient-care proposals currently on the table that do not include patient limits and that are unique to BMC. To say otherwise is dishonest. We expect that when this charge is dismissed, BMC will settle with MNA BMC nurses. BMC should return to the table, bargain in good faith and address the very real concerns of nurses and the community."
The MNA agrees that staffing levels are a concern among many nursing staffs across the state, leading to the ballot question, but each individual bargaining unit negotiates in response to local conditions.
The nurses recently released some 437 "unsafe staffing" forms gathered over the last 22 months. The nurses have documented occasions, in their professional opinion, when the floors and units were understaffed and jeopardized patient safety. The nurses say the hospital is chronically understaffed and the staffing committee proposal from the hospital won't address the needs. There is already a staffing committee that hasn't been effective, the union says.
"We are concerned by our administration's continued disregard for the negotiating process, and more importantly, for our documented patient safety incidents by their continued refusal to work with us to improve staffing to ensure the highest quality care," Alex Neary, a registered nurse and co-chair of MNA's bargaining committee, said last week.
The staffing issues were raised by nurses even before negotiations began. Back in 2014, the nurses held an information picket regarding staffing outside of the hospital in response to growing patient numbers from the closure of the former North Adams Regional Hospital.
The nurses have filed two unfair labor practice complaints already against the hospital. The first accused Milano and the administration of interfering with the strike vote when it sent a letter to the membership outlining the hospital's response to a strike. The second accuses the hospital of withholding information on health insurance. The MNA says the hospital is not bargaining in good faith.
For the last three months, both sides have said the negotiation sessions have been fairly fruitless. The hospital said they made many concessions in the first year while the MNA hadn't and now the MNA says they have been moving toward finding a compromise but the hospital isn't seriously considering them -- only sticking to the best and final.
Milano believes in the hospital's offer and wants the nurses to reconsider it. That offer came after incorporating numerous asks from the union, he said. The nurses say they've already rejected it and are still pushing for additional staffing language.
The complaint made on Thursday is an effort from BMC to show the union that it is serious about reaching a settlement.
"We are hoping the MNA will understand we are serious about this. They need to come to the table and really talk to us about it," Milano said.
And the union is hoping to get the hospital to see that they are serious about the staffing issues as well. On Sept. 20, local activist groups are putting on a "community town hall" at the Berkshire Athenaeum to discuss patient concerns and an online petition has been circulating through the MNA's website backing the union and calling on hospital leaders to settle the dispute.
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Tags: BMC,   contract negotiations,   MNA,   nurses,   

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