Pittsfield — Berkshire Medical Center, the county’s largest hospital, is taking its nurses’ union to court over a one-day strike planned for early next month.
The eight-page complaint, filed yesterday in U.S District Court in Boston, not only questions the legality of the planned labor stoppage but seeks an injunction and damages to compensate the hospital for the cost of replacement nurses.
BMC lawyers say the agreement with the Massachusetts Nurses Association requires that union grievances be heard through arbitration, “a process that allows differences to be resolved without interfering with hospital operations,” BMC management said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.
“Instead, the MNA is asking nurses to leave patients’ bedsides to walk a picket line,” BMC said.
Represented by the MNA, the nearly 800 nurses at Berkshire Medical Center delivered a 10-day notice to hospital management on Friday notifying them of their intent to hold a one-day “unfair labor practice strike” beginning at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 3 and running until 7 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 4.
That vote came three days after the union staged a forum at which five nurses told troubling stories of understaffed and overwhelmed nurses and certified nursing assistants.
The union said BMC nurses have raised patient safety concerns to hospital management using various means for years, including directly to supervisors, at labor-management meetings and during ongoing collective-bargaining negotiations.
But according to officials at Berkshire Health Systems, BMC’s parent organization, the strike will, by necessity, be considerably longer than one day. While “BMC will bring in experienced, qualified replacement nurses” to work in place of existing staff, “the temporary nursing agency requires a minimum five-day contract.” Therefore, the labor stoppage would result in greater financial losses for the striking nurses.
Yesterday, BMC said the union has made conflicting claims about its motivations for the strike. For weeks the union has said the strike is about patient care and nurse staffing concerns. According to the National Labor Relations Board, workers may strike for either economic reasons–such as wages benefits and working conditions–or because of “unfair labor practices.”
“However, in filing the required 10-day strike notice on Sept. 22, the MNA called the action an ‘unfair labor practice’ strike, although the only unfair labor practice charges that the MNA has made against BMC involve just the kind of contract grievances that must be settled through arbitration,” BMC said.
For its part, the union released a statement yesterday before the BMC complaint was filed. In it, the union said, at the collective bargaining session held the day before in an effort to avert a strike, BMC nurses proposed new compromises during negotiations on the contested issues of safe patient care and health insurance. The union says BMC officials effectively walked out of the meeting.
“For more than a year, Berkshire Medical Center has refused to negotiate in good faith over workload, safe patient care and quality, affordable health insurance,” said nurse Alex Neary, co-chair of the MNA bargaining committee. “On Wednesday, the hospital once again refused to compromise and agree to concrete improvements to patient care.”
Negotiations began for a new contract about a year ago and include a federal mediator. More than 25 bargaining sessions have been held. On May 31, 82 percent of the union nurses rejected the hospital’s “best and final” contract offer.
In July, 83 percent of the nurses voted to authorize a potential one-day strike. The 16-member bargaining committee had the authority to call for such a strike provided it issued a 10-day strike notice, which it did as required under federal law.
The strike includes the following BHS holdings: BMC in Pittsfield, the Hillcrest Cancer Center in Pittsfield and BMC’s facility in North Adams. BHS holdings also include Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington. However, Fairview nurses are represented by a different union, which reached an agreement with BHS on a new contract late last year.
“We are disappointed that the MNA has pushed for a strike rather than give that offer due consideration,” said David Phelps, president and CEO of BHS, and chief operating officer Diane Kelly in a joint statement. “However, in the event that the strike does take place, we are well prepared to continue the full range of services always available at Berkshire Medical Center through capable and dedicated care teams. The hospital will remain open and fully accessible to our patients and our community.”
BMC spokesman Michael Leary told the Edge that U.S Nursing Corporation will provide the temporary nurses if the strike occurs. Indeed, USNC has posted openings for nurses in a Massachusetts facility where a “strike notice has been received.” The required dates of availability for the replacement nurses coincide with the days of the planned MNA strike at BMC. The posting boasts a 60-hour guarantee for the week and offers a $500 bonus for persons who refer a nurse to USNC who successfully completes the assignment.
On its website, USNC describes itself as “the premier provider of job action services in the US.” and says, since 1989, it “has been working with healthcare facilities and nursing professionals to provide turnkey staffing solutions during labor disputes.”
Asked for the union’s reaction to the legal action filed by the hospital, MNA spokesman Joe Markham called the hospital’s complaint “without merit” and said that MNA attorneys are preparing to fight it in federal court, though no date has yet been set for a hearing.
“In general, by this action, Berkshire Medical Center executives are treating the nurses as if they have no legal right to withhold their labor even for a day,” Markham said.
“The nurses obviously have the right to protest, to advocate for themselves and their patients. The hospital would deprive nurses of their protected voice. This is a continuation of the hospital’s arrogant, ongoing refusal to bargain in good faith, and its refusal to ensure appropriate nurse staffing and safe patient care.”
The union has scheduled a “Patient Safety Vigil” the day before the planned strike on Monday, Oct. 2, from 6 to 8 p.m. outside BMC on North Street in Pittsfield so that “nurses and supporters gather in solidarity the evening before [the] strike,” Markham said.