Pittsfield — Having completed their one-day strike, nurses at Berkshire Medical Center attempted to return to work this morning only to find themselves locked out of the hospital at least until Sunday, Oct. 8.
When the workers, who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, tried to enter the hospital at 7 a.m. today, they were greeted by uniformed security guards and Arthur Milano, BHS’ vice president of human resources, who told them they “won’t be returning today but we’ll welcome you back on the 8th.”
The approximately 100 nurses insisted they had returned to “care for our patients” because “that’s what we were hired to do.” They then began chanting, “Our hospital, our patients!” (See video below)
BMC, the county’s largest hospital, took its nurses’ union to court last week over a one-day strike planned for Oct. 3. The suit questioned the legality of the planned labor stoppage, said it was a violation of the existing labor agreement, and sought an injunction and damages to compensate the hospital for the cost of hiring replacement nurses.
But the hospital lost the legal challenge on Friday when U.S. District Court Judge Mark G. Mastroianni denied the emergency injunction request in Springfield on Friday, dealing the hospital a setback and allowing the union to go forward with its planned work stoppage.
“The BMC nurse strike is over, but BMC is choosing to continue with replacement nurses from outside the community for four more days,” MNA spokesman Joe Markham told the Edge.
Markham said the union is requesting information from BMC about its contract with the replacement nurses and believes the hospital’s use of the replacement nurses may be “retaliatory against its own nurses for going on strike and advocating for safe patient care.”
“The hospital has refused to provide the information so far,” Markham explained. “We are considering next steps around that issue.”
Hospital spokesman Michael Leary has said the strike “makes it evident that this is a tactic the union is using to promote its statewide political agenda,” a reference to the MNA’s efforts to gather support for a proposed 2018 statewide ballot initiative that would limit the number of patients assigned to a nurse at any one time.
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 union says 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 have to last longer than one day. While BMC says it will bring in “experienced, qualified replacement nurses” to work in place of existing staff, the temporary nursing agency U.S. Nursing Corporation requires a minimum five-day contract. Therefore the labor stoppage would result in greater financial losses for the striking nurses.
The hospital insists that the replacement nurses are fully certified and that patient care will not suffer. The five-day replacement plan will cost BMC a reported $4 million.
Markham said there will be a rally outside BMC at 5 p.m. today and 5 p.m. tomorrow at the Berkshire Health Systems facility in North Adams with representatives from the North County Cares Coalition. Meanwhile, picketing will continue outside BMC “until the lockout ends,” Markham said.