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Fresh from successful legal fight, BMC nurses set to strike

A spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association said its members were pleased at the ruling and that they would be holding a Patient Safety Vigil on Monday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. before the 24-hour strike is slated proceed on Tuesday at 7 a.m., "unless BMC bargains in good faith and agrees to a fair contract."

Pittsfield — With its legal appeals apparently exhausted, Berkshire Medical Center will see its approximately 800 nurses go on strike tomorrow barring any last-minute developments.

BMC, the county’s largest hospital, took its nurses’ union to court last week over a one-day strike planned for Tuesday, 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 replacement nurses.

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.”

Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield. Photo courtesy Berkshire Health Systems

But 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.

“We are disappointed that the federal court has denied the request for an injunction to prevent the strike scheduled for tomorrow,” BMC spokesman Michael Leary told the Edge. “This strike does not serve anyone’s best interests — not the nurses, not the hospital’s and not the community’s, and can only serve to harm all three.”

A spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents the BMC nurses, said its members were pleased at the ruling and that they would be holding a Patient Safety Vigil on Monday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. before the 24-hour strike is slated proceed on Tuesday at 7 a.m., “unless BMC bargains in good faith and agrees to a fair contract.”

Represented by the MNA, the nearly 800 nurses at Berkshire Medical Center delivered a 10-day notice to hospital management last month notifying it of their intent to hold a one-day “unfair labor practice strike” beginning at 7 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 3, and running until 7 a.m. 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.

Posters displayed at a Sept. 19 forum held at the First United Methodist Church of Pittsfield supporting the nurses’ contention that patient care was compromised by understaffing. The nurses union has now approved a one-day strike. Photo: Terry Cowgill

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 issues 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 be considerably 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.

“We are fully prepared to provide uninterrupted care throughout the five-day period and have been preparing for this eventuality for several months,” Leary said. “The fact that this is the third such strike by the MNA since June makes it evident that this is a tactic the union is using to promote its statewide political agenda.”

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.

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