Pittsfield — Embroiled in a bitter labor dispute with management, the bargaining committee for the union representing nurses at Berkshire Medical Center voted yesterday to give notice to hospital officials that they intend to stage a one-day strike on Tuesday, Oct. 3.
The vote comes three days after the union staged a forum in which five nurses told stories of understaffed and overwhelmed nurses and certified nursing assistants. About 100 audience members asked questions and cheered the nurses as they criticized management.
Represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, 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., the MNA said in a news release announcing the action.
“BMC nurses have been bargaining in good faith for a year, seeking to ensure that their patients are able to receive the safest and most effective nursing care possible,” MNA spokesman Joe Markman said. “The hospital has refused to negotiate over concrete improvements to patient care and RN staffing. BMC management has also refused to provide information necessary for nurses to negotiate quality, affordable health insurance.”
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.
“With the community behind us, we are prepared to strike on October 3 for patient safety and a fair contract,” said Alex Neary, RN and co-chair of the MNA BMC Bargaining Committee. “All other efforts to persuade management to make concrete patient safety improvements and reach a fair agreement have been unsuccessful. It is up to BMC to negotiate in good faith and avoid a strike.”
Union members insist that health insurance is also a bone of contention. They say BMC has proposed doubling the price nurses pay each month for individual health premiums. Nurses in BMC’s family health insurance plans already pay 40 to 70 percent more than managers.
“BMC has also refused to consider any plan design, cost sharing, rates or co-payments other than what management first demanded at the beginning of negotiations nearly a year ago,” the news release says.
The union also cited BMC profit statistics indicating the nonprofit netted more than $207 million over the last five years, according to the Center for Health Information and Analysis. In 2016 alone, BMC posted a profit of $47.2 million.
“That is a margin of 9.7 percent – more than three times the state and regional averages of 3 percent, making it a real outlier among profitable hospitals,” the release adds.
Click here to see the data from the Center for Health Information and Analysis supporting the union’s profits claims.
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.
“As a result, this labor action, if it goes forward, will run from Tuesday, October 3rd through Saturday, October 7th,” BMC officials said.
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 has the authority to call for such a strike provided it issues a 10-day strike notice, as required under federal law.
The next round of negotiations is set for Sept. 27. In addition, the MNA is gathering support for a proposed 2018 ballot initiative that would limit the number of patients assigned to a nurse at any one time.
In response to The Edge’s request for a reaction, Berkshire Health Systems President and CEO David Phelps and Chief Operating Officer Diane Kelly sent the following statement, which has been edited for brevity:
We are disappointed but not surprised by today’s notification from the Massachusetts Nurses Association of their scheduled strike to begin on Tuesday, Oct. 3.
The MNA continues to mislead our community and those who depend on Berkshire Medical Center for their care and employment. We have bargained in good faith, offering a strong contract for our nurses, while the union is focused on gaining public support for their ballot initiative.
The contract offer the MNA has rejected would give nurses a meaningful voice in staffing decisions; a 10 percent raise over three years, with starting RN salaries that go from $73,000 in year one to over $75,000 in year three, and higher salaries for mid-scale and maximum-scale RNs that by year three amount to over $116,000 per year; enhanced education support; and improved differential pay.
We of course hope that the union will not go through with its strike threat, which would result in a great financial cost to the health system. We return to the bargaining table with the MNA on September 27, and remain committed to working toward agreement on a new contract.
Leadership at Berkshire Medical Center has been preparing for the possibility of a strike since the union held a strike authorization vote several months ago, and we have a comprehensive strike response plan in place. This plan has been approved by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and ensures that Berkshire Medical Center will continue all of its operations throughout the strike period.
This community can have full confidence that BMC will continue to provide all services and procedures during a strike, and that patients and their families will have safe and unimpeded access to our facilities.