Another walkout by Baystate nurses

April 23, 2018

Ian Turner reports on a one-day strike by nurses at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, Massachusetts--and what's at stake in their fight for a fair contract.

NURSES AT Baystate Franklin Medical Center (BFMC) in Greenfield, Massachusetts, went on strike earlier this month for the second time in less than a year, followed by a lockout afterward imposed by management.

The 200 members of Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) have been working without a contract since December 2016. They held a first one-day walkout in June 2017.

The story is the same as it was then: the nurses authorized and announced a one-day strike, and as retaliation, the hospital locked the nurses out for three days, starting the evening before the planned strike.

The demands remain the same as well: safe staffing levels for nurses, maintenance of health-care benefits, and raises to help keep up with cost of living.

The initial strike date was set for February, and it was to coincide with another MNA strike at Berkshire Medical Center, but management at both hospitals backed down at the last minute and agreed to return to the bargaining table.

The bargaining unit was open about negotiations and invited members of the community to attend to witness for themselves the complete lack of cooperation on the part of Baystate management.

Nurses at Baystate Franklin Medical Center demand a fair contract
Nurses at Baystate Franklin Medical Center demand a fair contract (Massachusetts Nurses Association | Facebook)

Neither Baystate CEO Mark Keroack, nor interim president of Baystate Franklin (and sitting president of Baystate Noble) Ron Bryant, attended any negotiation session. A team of seven to eight upper-management lackeys represented Baystate, with the human resources director being almost the sole spokesperson.

Community members were welcome to converse with the union while they were caucusing--they had nothing to hide.

Staffing was the most important demand for the union. Its negotiators demanded staffing grids from management to see from what guidelines Baystate uses to construct their schedule.

Baystate obliged, but with a caveat--they redacted the areas of the spreadsheets that showed the desired staffing for other job classes, such as Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) and Mental Health Counselor (MHC).

Convinced that Baystate was trying to pull a fast one, the union demanded unredacted staffing grids. Also, the union attempted to create language that guaranteed management wouldn't slash support staff and put that extra work onto the nurses.

Management refused to negotiate on these grounds, claiming the nurses can't negotiate for other job classes, and effectively put the negotiation of staffing at a standstill.

STAFFING ISSUES have had a drastic impact on the hospital. Nurses claim the lack of staffing has led to high turnover, as well as diminishing patient care.

Baystate management had the gall to place public ads claiming that BFMC is among the top 100 rural and community hospitals based on their 2017 iVantage Health Analytics scores, but conveniently omitting that this is based on "financial stability" and "market share."

When it comes to patient outcomes, Baystate's score is actually negative. This is because nurses are overworked and stretched beyond their ability to provide quality patient care.

Baystate sent out a propaganda mailing to county residents touting the same claims from their iVantage scores, plus citing salaries from the most senior nurse (over 35 years of seniority) on the floor--misleading residents into thinking that the majority of nurses already make senior pay.

Franklin County is an old manufacturing hub that has seen its industry flee and fail over the course of many years, so the wage propaganda from Baystate struck a nerve with some residents, leaving them with doubt over whether or not the union was being reasonable.

In a response, MNA published overtime data from the most recent 12-month period:

-- There were 2,885 shifts of 12 or more hours and 486 shifts of 13 hours or more. Shifts longer than 12 hours are against national best nursing practices.

There were 751 shifts in which a nurse was scheduled to work eight hours but worked 12 hours or more. Of those, 191 lasted 13 hours or more.

There were 36 shifts of more than 16 hours. All RN shifts over 16 hours are illegal in Massachusetts. The longest uninterrupted shift was 19.5 hours!

In total, there were 14,947 overtime shifts (excluding shifts less than eight hours 10 minutes).

The MNA also published wage comparisons to other nearby acute care hospitals. Most other hospitals pay their nurses between 5 percent and 20 percent more for both start and top steps.

This compounds the staffing problem because Baystate can't replace nurses fast enough, not that they're even trying. Barely 12 hours after the lockout ended, management was sending nurses text message alerts about shifts that needed to be covered.

AFTER LAST year's strike, the MNA filed numerous charges against Baystate to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which found that about a half-dozen of the charges had "merit."

Most notably, management used security and police to escort union leadership out of the building after the lockout had ended. Knowing full well they'd likely do this again, despite it being against the law, Donna Stern, senior co-chair of the bargaining unit, attempted to enter the building.

Stern was met by four town police officers, the head of the hospital security and a member of hospital management. Describing the altercation afterward, she said, "I walked forward, and four cops swooped around me and put hands on, and I wrestled a little bit. I could have wrestled a lot more, but I didn't, because [the nurses] need me to be here tomorrow."

At one point, Stern said she asked the cops: "Are you on the side of the workers, or are you on the side of the boss? It seems to me that you're on the side of the boss." She also pointed out the boss was in violation of the law.

The Greenfield Recorder reported that the hospital hired the town police as security detail for the duration of the strike, in addition to the extra security subcontractor and on top of the security already employed by the hospital.

The incident sparked a controversy within the union, as nurses and police often times work collaboratively in the emergency room. Some nurses indicated that they recognized the police were acting as management's lackeys, while others were upset that police were being involved at all.

This type of incident, while creating much discomfort, also had the potential to challenge some nurses' preconceived notions about the police and the supposedly "neutral" role they play.

ASIDE FROM the initial altercation, the beginning of the lockout and the duration of the strike went off mostly without a hitch.

A couple hundred nurses and community supporters and town councilors were on the picket lines, all armed with signs and banners, receiving countless honks from passerby and singing numerous radical labor songs.

The nurses also had a couple of community cleanup events to thank local residents for their support. On the last day of the lockout, the nurses packed their bags and headed down to Baystate's headquarters in Springfield.

They picketed, erecting a huge, inflatable fat cat holding a bag of cash and wearing a Baystate ID badge with "Mark Keroack, CEO" and his picture on it. Keroack's salary in 2016 was a staggering $1.4 million.

Upon the conclusion of the lockout, nurses were forced to "check in" at an elaborate security screening, which included countless barricades around the hospital entrance with "TSA" labeled on them. Nurses reported that they were held in a holding room inside the hospital before being assigned to their units for their shifts.

Baystate has yet to budge on staffing, and the nurses still don't have a contract.

At one point during negotiations, management had backed down on wages, but the offer was temporary for that bargaining session only, which the nurses rejected due the hospital's lack of negotiating on staffing. The hospital also backed down on the health care benefits, and has agreed to maintenance of benefits.

It's unclear if the nurses will strike again. Their past strikes have all been one day, and no discussion has been had of longer or indefinite strikes as of yet.

Currently, a ballot initiative is in the works in Massachusetts to legally limit patient assignments to nurses, which the MNA has been heavily involved in supporting. The question will hopefully be up for a vote in November.

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