Ingredients for the Baystate nurses’ victory

June 12, 2018

After 18 months of fighting for a new contract, the 230 members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield are celebrating a new contract that meets nearly all of their demands. The agreement was reached after Baystate returned to bargaining little over a month after a one-day strike by nurses that the hospital extended into a three-day lockout. Nurses voted overwhelmingly to ratify their new contract on June 11.

Most important to the nurses, Baystate agreed to multiple provisions to maintain safe staffing levels. Management agreed to maintain nurse staffing grids and hire enough nurses to properly fill it. In the past, Baystate purposely put out schedules with unfilled shifts and asked for volunteers to work the empty shifts. The hospital also agreed to language that prevents charge nurses from having assignments most of the time. Typically, the charge nurse had to take one or more assignments during a shift, which made it impossible for them to do their other duties, burdening all other nurses who depend on the charge nurse’s support.

Baystate also rolled back proposals for cuts in health insurance and earned time/holidays. Wages, which are a key factor in the high turnover of nurses, were brought back in line with other hospitals in the area, according to union members. Nurses will receive a $.50-an-hour ratification bonus for all hours worked in 2017, plus an immediate 2.5 percent increase. There will be raises of 1.4 percent, 1.5 percent and 2 percent, respectively, in each of the next three years.

Statewide, the MNA is organizing for a safe-staffing ballot referendum that will be voted on in November. And unlike past years, the nurses haven’t closed unfair labor practice charges against Baystate filed with the NLRB, so those investigations are ongoing.

Donna Stern, the bargaining unit senior co-chair, discussed the lessons of the two-and-a-half-year-long struggle with David Wood and Ian Turner.

AFTER 18 months of fighting for this contract, what are the biggest lessons you can draw in terms of what ultimately won a good deal?

FIRST OF all, we’re a democratic union. All the decisions are made by the nurses who are working by the bedside. We vote on everything. That’s the first thing: everything was open, nothing was closed. Negotiations were open, every committee meeting was open.

I think that’s the first thing unions have to make sure they’re doing. You can’t be doing behind-closed-door discussions or trying to cut deals behind closed doors — the business union model. I think that because we were open and available, there was a lot of trust in us as the committee members.

Nurses for a fair contract at the Baystate Franklin Medical Center
Nurses for a fair contract at the Baystate Franklin Medical Center (Massachusetts Nurses Association)

In terms of actual strategy, I don’t know if there was one action that made the difference. I think it was multiple actions, building on the previous ones and moving forward, which finally got them to capitulate and give us what we wanted. We got 90 to 95 percent of what we wanted.

I think people focus on the big things we did. We had two strikes, which turned into two lockouts, plus multiple rallies, outside the town commons, outside the hospital. We had town meetings that were open to the community. We did actions down in Springfield, focusing on the Baystate headquarters and also targeting the board of trustees.

I also think you can never minimize the internal organizing that always has to take place. We’re always having to educate and support nurses who know little about unions, or who have never been in a struggle before because they weren’t around during the previous strike in 2012.

Because the staffing has been so horrific at our hospital and the wages well below what other nurses make at other hospitals, we lost a lot of nurses during this contract cycle. So there were a lot of new faces coming in. Having to get those nurses up to speed and getting them ready for a strike vote takes a lot of work.

We had tremendous union support. One of the things that the MNA has worked hard at is rebuilding the labor movement, which means showing up for other people’s strikes and other peoples struggles.

WHERE DO you go from here?

WE HAVE a good contract, but we still don’t have what all health care facilities need, which is safe-staffing laws. Our focus now is on a ballot initiative, which would write safe-staffing limits into law.

Right now, this initiative is just focused on hospitals, but as anyone who works in health care knows, staffing levels are abysmal everywhere. So in the long run, we want to take this fight to nursing homes, rehab facilities and across the health care world.

The other thing we’ve talked about as a bargaining committee is how we can continue to support the unionization of other workers in the hospital. What came out of the last fight? Two more unions. The security officers and skilled maintenance workers are still negotiating their first contract, but still — that’s two unions that came out of the last struggle.

We feel that the rest of the hospital is primed for organizing, so we want to continue with that. Frankly, as long as Baystate is allowed to pit us against each other, they’ll try to do it. We as a committee have been looking at some great strategies about how to confront that.

For us to continue winning as workers, more of us in the hospital have to become unionized. Because as good as this contract is, it doesn’t cover other workers, who really got screwed by our employer. They’ve lost a lot, and they have no way at this point to get it back — unless they organize.

WHAT WERE the greatest challenges of the last 18 months?

KEEPING THE nurses together. Baystate’s strategy was to try to split us — to spread lies about what we were saying or doing. Which was a losing strategy on their part, because everything we did was open, so we could show that what they were saying was ridiculous.

This takes organizing face to face — nothing beats one-to-one communication. You have to be willing to organize all the time. You have to be willing to show up on someone’s shift at 2 a.m. You have to be willing to go to every department and have hard conversations — to have people who really don’t like the union get into your face.

Most of the nurses were united, because most of the nurses were living in hell. In general, the nurses who most sided with the hospital were on protected units — more outpatient settings that are less affected by the staffing problems. If you worked on the in-patient floors, you felt the lack of staff all the time, and that’s where the majority of the nurses were.

But some nurses were getting tired and asking, “When is this fight going to stop? Can’t we just settle?” So there had to be constant reinforcement about why we couldn’t settle. It’s exhausting — I’m not going to lie to you. You have to organize every day, and you have to be available to meet with your fellow nurses, who are sometimes scared and nervous because of how overstretched they were.

DID YOU see other nurses change in the course of the struggle?

I SAW them find their voices. I saw them do things I never thought I’d see them do. It’s exciting to see a 24 year old learn about labor history — about the people before us and what they did to get to the place we are now. You could see the next layer of leaders coming out of the fight.

We had already been through struggles, but now I look at us as salty veterans. This is a bargaining unit that’s been forged through the fire for the last eight years, where a $2.5 billion dollar corporation has been trying to break us, and it hasn’t succeeded.

We’ve weathered six hospital presidents and my third chief nursing officer. We’ve had more medical directors than the Pope has Bibles. I’ve lost track of how many nurse managers I’ve had.

So we’ve seen casualties on their side, and through them all, the nurses kept together. We kept fighting and moving forward. We’re not perfect, and we’ve made mistakes. And there are nurses in our bargaining unit who aren’t for the union — but at this point, it’s a very, very small percentage.

CAN YOU speak about the importance of democracy in your union and how plays a role in a successful fight?

WHEN YOU do things behind closed doors, it’s much easier for the hospital’s poisonous message to get out there. It’s very hard to counter.

But when everything is out there in the open and nothing is hidden — when every negotiation is open, every committee meeting is open, every labor management meeting is open, all the bulletin board information is up to date, and so is the Baystate Nurses United Facebook page — then it’s really hard for the hospital to get their message to stick.

We were making sure that the information was available, so it was really hard for anyone to say, “I didn’t know.” The nurses who were buying into Baystate’s message were the ones who chose not to participate in any way, and did nothing to seek out information. If they still said they didn’t know, that means they chose to put their head in the sand, which means they were already with the hospital, and it doesn’t matter what we say or do.

The key then becomes to inoculate the rest of the members against that minority. Not to bully or shame them, or be aggressive, but simply to have the answers — so that when they chose to spout the hospital’s poison, the rest of the members say: “I don’t believe you.”

THE UNION put a lot of work into organizing community support? How was that organized?

BECAUSE IT’S such a long fight, you have peaks and valleys. What we’ve learned is that even if you’re in a valley, you have to keep the communication going.

And even though we already had great community networks, people have other concerns — this isn’t their only fight. There are a million things going on in the Trump era. We’re just one of many struggles. So if we don’t keep coalition members engaged, they’re going to be distracted, but not because they don’t care.

Among other unions, the Teamsters refused to deliver anything to the hospital during our strike and lockout. We received letters of solidarity from Vermont and New York nurses. We had the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the firefighters, the teachers, the food service workers, AFSCME, SEIU — you name it, they were there.

It was great. Workers have to remember that there’s more of us than there are of them. We have to constantly remember that.

SPEAKING OF Trump, the MNA was at the Women’s Marches and the March for Our Lives. Tell us how the union gets involved in these movements.

AND WE also worked on the “No on 2” campaign with the Massachusetts Teachers Association to defeat charter school expansion. We’ve been at the Verizon and AT&T strikes. We’ve been everywhere.

My vision is to build a social justice union that goes beyond the struggle over what’s happening in the hospitals. I think people are starting to connect the dots and see how our struggle is the symptom of a larger problem.

You and I both know what that problem is. It’s called capitalism. Not everyone is there yet, but people are starting to connect the dots and understand that none of these struggles happen in isolation.

Further Reading

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