What will it take to get Baystate to say "uncle"?

Rojas Oliva reports on a fight by nurses at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Western Massachusetts, who have been locked out as punishment for a planned one-day strike.

Nurses walk the picket line during a previous one-day strike against Baystate Franklin Medical CenterNurses walk the picket line during a previous one-day strike against Baystate Franklin Medical Center

BAYSTATE FRANKLIN Medical Center nurses, represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), are planning a one-day strike on Monday, June 26, to protest the hospital's refusal to bargain for a fair contract and improved working conditions.

In March, the nurses at the Springfield, Massachusetts, hospital voted by 93 percent to authorize the strike. Claiming that a walkout is illegal, Baystate is retaliating by locking out nurses from the evening of June 25 through to the evening of June 28. This is despite not having a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board saying the strike is illegal.

The nurses' previous contract expired in December 2016. More than 20 bargaining sessions since then have stalled over various issues, key among them staffing and health insurance.

The planned strike is part of a tumultuous history between the nurses and Baystate that includes a strike in 2012, and another near-strike in 2014 that was averted when Baystate gave in and agreed to contract demands days before the planned strike.

In a May letter to Baystate Franklin's President Cindy Russo, the nurses summarized the current conditions as "working while exhausted" and enumerated the following systematic staffing failures in the past year:

-- There were 3,980 shifts that were longer than 12 hours.
-- It is bad enough that 2,768 times 12 hour nurses could not leave at the end of their shifts, but it is unconscionable that 1,193 times nurses who were scheduled to work 8 hours were not able to stop working for more than 12 hours!...
-- There were 433 shifts of 13 hours or more; 70 shifts of 14 hours or more, 131 shifts of 15 hours or more, 22 shifts of 16 hours or more and 5 shifts of 17 hours or more!
-- It is illegal for an RN ever to work 16 or more hours even in a declared federal or state emergency. But your data show that this happened 27 times. The longest shift was 17.5 hours.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THESE SYMPTOMS of chronic understaffing and faulty scheduling have severe consequences for patients. A 2004 study found that nurses working shifts longer than 12 hours, overtime, or more than 40 hours per week were significantly more prone to errors.

Donna Stern, a Baystate nurse and senior chair of the bargaining unit at the hospital, said in an interview:

People's lives are at the receiving end of what we do. When patients don't have proper nursing care they die. They die with medical errors, they die with infections, they die with pressure ulcers, they die with high readmission rates. We're asking [Baystate] to meet their core staffing, their own guidelines that they have come up with.

Beyond staffing concerns, the nurses are attempting to renegotiate their health insurance. Under their current plan with Health New England--an insurance company owned by Baystate--nurses are responsible for the 26 percent raise in rates during a single year, as well as increased charges if the need care outside of the Baystate system.

This creates a self-feeding loop where Baystate employees, because they have health insurance through Baystate, are pushed into using only the Baystate system for their care. Not only this, but the health insurance plan the nurses have is more expensive than Baystate offers to the general public. "It's the worst New England health plan design in all of western Massachusetts," Stern said.

While health insurance is a key component to many negotiations for fair labor conditions, it is especially urgent for registered nurses as they have one of the highest rates of occupational injuries and illnesses.

"Back injuries, shoulder injuries, knee injuries [and] in terms of violence we get attacked more than police officers," Stern said. "We accept that the job is dangerous, but you have a responsibility as the employer to not only create safe working conditions in terms of staffing, you have a responsibility to provide us a decent and affordable health insurance plan."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

AFTER BAYSTATE'S continued failure to improve patient-to-staff ratios at the hospital or provide better health insurance for their employees, the 200 union nurses at Franklin voted 93 percent to authorize a one-day strike.

Although Baystate, like other employers public health employers, has characterized the strike as selfishly damaging the community, Stern sees it as fundamental to winning better working conditions for the nurses and, in doing so, improving patient care.

"When you skimp on workers, what you're saying is 'I'm skimping on the patients,'" Stern said. "That's what it really comes down to. If you really cared about the patients you would recognize that taking care of workers means taking care of patients. [Instead], it's profits over patient care."

The ability of a strike to bend a corporation's ironclad commitment to profit toward greater justice for workers comes from the ability to combine the various pressures of workers solidarity and community support. As Stern explains:

It always goes back to power. See, bargaining doesn't take place at the table. You don't get a contract at the table. You get a contract with what you're willing to do, action-wise. You're going to have to make them quite uncomfortable, and you don't know what the thing is that's going to make them break. It's usually a number of actions, a number of pressures.

Stern says that she sees strikes within a wider context of historical labor struggles:

Everything in this contract and everything that's ever happened in unions has been fought for. People have died. They have literally died for the right for me to be in this privileged place. If you look at United States labor history, it's full of workers dying for the rights of other workers. That's a powerful thing. This is peanuts compared to coal mining strikes. This is stressful, but nobody's going to pull a gun on me...

No union is going to be perfect. That's not where the revolution is going to be. As good as unions are you're negotiating the terms of your own exploitation. Any way you figure this out, they're making money off of you.

This is a way to get some of it back and have some decent standards at a workplace, but they're still making money off of you. You don't make $480 million in a four-year period, you don't have money in offshore accounts, you don't pay your top brass over $15 million a year.

Beyond improving the specific conditions for those on strike, the usefulness of a strike lies in demonstrating the concrete power of working-class solidarity. "We are right on the brink of workers realizing their power," Stern said. "Even at this little hospital, I can feel the shift."

In fact, following the successful show of nurse solidarity in their 2012 strike, both the security workers and skilled maintenance workers at Franklin unionized. "The long-term goal is to get every person at Baystate organized," Stern said

Accomplishing this broader goal of inspiration and organization begins with the smaller goal of achieving justice through workers exercising their power. "Baystate is a $1.5 billion corporation against 200 nurses," Stern said. "Getting them to say 'uncle'? We did it the last time and we're going to do it again."