Mass. nurses ready to strike

By Wayne Standley and Brian Newman

REGISTERED NURSES (RNs) at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, Mass., voted overwhelmingly on August 30 to authorize a strike, allowing their negotiating committee to call for a walkout if necessary.

The nurses, represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association/National Nurses United, are up against Baystate Health Systems (BHS) management, represented by the union-busting law firm of Jackson Lewis. The hospital is demanding concessions that would strip away their collective bargaining rights.

"We're nurses; we're patient advocates," said Donna Stern, RN, co-chair of the nurses bargaining unit. "We want the community to understand that we are very serious about retaining our union rights, as those rights are key to providing nurses the ability to advocate for better working conditions and safer patient care."

Nurses, who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), and community members are ready to stand together. Red yard signs supporting the nurses are all over Greenfield and surrounding towns. An informational picket on August 9 drew hundreds of supporters throughout the day.

BHS and the nurses' union have been negotiating since October 2011, and the hospital is still insisting on concessions that would eliminate the nurses' right to bargain over wages and health insurance.

After the first year of the contract, the administration wants nurses to accept the wage increases granted to non-union employees. This means that nurses would lose their right to bargain over wages in the future. Administrators also want to dictate which health insurance plan will cover. Plus, they want to eliminate daily overtime after eight hours per day and only begin paying when nurses work over 40 hours in a week.

In a setting where the majority of nurses are hired for less than 40 hours a week, forced overtime to fill holes in the schedule and provide adequate staffing is the norm. The hospital's plan on when overtime pay kicks in will amount to a pay cut for most nurses.

Hospital administrators walked out on the last negotiating session on August 28. The union has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board. It is unclear if the hospital will return to the table at their next scheduled meeting later in September.

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BHS CAN well afford to provide pay raises and better benefits for nurses--and all their employees. In the last fiscal year, BHS took in almost $1.5 billion. CEO Mark Tolosky's compensation was $1.9 million, making him the second-highest-paid health care CEO in New England.

In February, BHS dedicated a new 640,000-foot expansion at Baystate Medical Center, called "the hospital of the future," costing over $250 million. To BHS, that means a "future" without union workers.

BHS--a vast conglomeration of "non-profit" and for-profit operations--is one of the largest health care systems in New England and the largest private employer in Western Massachusetts.

Of its more than 10,000 employees, only the 210 RNs at Franklin Medical Center and 58 at the Visiting Nurses Association are unionized. BHS has a long history of busting unionization campaigns by their other employees, including attempts to eliminate the 58 MNA members of the Visiting Nurses Association.

Even Director of Employee Relations Jo-Ann Davis is a lawyer affiliated with the local union-busting law firm, Skoler, Abbott and Presser.

BHS wants to eliminate any union presence in its facilities by busting the MNA at Franklin Medical Center. But the nurses are just as determined to stand up against Baystate bullying. As RN and bargaining unit co-chair Linda Judd said:

Today's vote shows that the nurses of Baystate Franklin Medical Center are united in advocating for our practice, our patients and our hospital. We care for our patients every day. We don't want to strike, but today, we have made it clear to Baystate management that we are willing to go out on strike to protect our patients and the quality of care we deliver.

And the community is ready to stand with their nurses.