Berkshire Medical Center nurses cancel strike after progress in talks with hospital management

Nurses held a vigil for patient safety at 5:30 p.m. on Monday outside of the Berkshire Medical Center after announcing the cancellation of their strike. Photo courtesy of Joe Markman.

On Friday, after 15 hours of talks between the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) and the Berkshire Medical Center (BMC), nurses cancelled a strike that was planned to begin yesterday. This strike would have been a follow-up action to the previous strike that occurred on Oct. 3, which led to a four-day lockout by the hospital. The planned strike would have cost the hospital between $3 and 4 million, as this fall’s strike did. Union spokesman Joe Markman explained the decision to cancel the strike. “We called off the strike, at least temporarily, because we’ve made enough progress at the bargaining table that we decided to call it off and go back to the table,” he said.

Relations have been tense between the 800 union nurses and the hospital since September 2016, when the previous agreement expired. The most contentious issues have been staffing, contract length and health insurance, the price of which the hospital seeks to double for the nurses.

The nurses have been advocating for increased staffing levels in order to handle the number of patients and improve the quality of care. They want BMC to commit to increasing, or at the very least maintaining, current levels of staffing. In addition, they want guarantees of patient limits or no patients for charge nurses, who are in charge of the hospital’s wards. “[Charge nurses are] supposed to coordinate all the flow throughout the unit,” Markman said. “If they have themselves patient assignments, that makes that job impossible to do, which makes the patient care suffer. So what we propose is that those nurses don’t have assignments … in order to effectively coordinate patient care in those units.”

Because the issue of nurse staffing minimums may be on the Massachusetts ballot next fall, the nurses want to ensure that alterations to state law will be included in the agreement. Meanwhile, BMC has been hesitant to commit to specific staffing numbers because it wants to maintain the ability to adjust to changing conditions.

In addition to negotiations, the nurses held a patient safety vigil at 5:30 p.m. on Monday. The vigil consisted not only of nurses, but also of community members in support of the cause. BMC nurse and bargaining committee member Amber VanBramer showed her support at the event. “We just wanted to let the public know that we’re here fighting for their safety in the hospital,” she said.

While Pittsfield may be a town away, these negotiations affect College students. BMC is the closest major medical center and a location at which students often seek medical care. College students have taken action in support of the BMC nurses, circulating a Google Form started by Feminist Collective chair Olivia Goodheart ’19, Alexandra Griffin ’19 and others entitled “Williams Students, Faculty and Staff in Support of BMC Nurses.” “The petition was started by myself and other students from various student groups, including Bread and Roses (a new group focused on supporting labor justice issues) and the Feminist Collective to support local nurses and their union in their campaign for safer staffing and better healthcare plans for nurses and, more broadly, for the health of Berkshire County communities,” Griffin said.

The petition explicitly calls for action within the College community. “We, the undersigned, stand in solidarity with the nurses,” it says. “We also call on Jim Kolesar, Williams College assistant to the president for community and government, and trustees of [BMC] to support the nurses in their campaign and work to ensure [that] the hospitals of Berkshire County provide excellent care for both patients and their employees.”

The petition also recognizes the importance of the BMC nurses, outlines their requests and expresses support for their activism. “Nurses do necessary and critical labor and are under-appreciated and under-compensated by the healthcare system – this is a feminist issue, and the Feminist Collective is committed to supporting local workers and their rights,” Goodheart said.

The BMC nurses go back to the bargaining table on March 6 and 7 with the goal of reaching a deal with the hospital. “What we’re hoping happens next week is that the bargaining continues to progress … and that they accept our proposals on what we feel is safe for the patients in the hospital,” VanBramer said.

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