News & Events

Nurses union sets strike vote

By Jennifer Huberdeau
Posted: 07/08/2010 01:39:59 AM EDT
Thursday July 8, 2010
North Adams Transcript

NORTH ADAMS — After six months of tense negotiations, the nurses’ union at North Adams Regional Hospital is poised to strike within the next month. Members of the local chapter of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents 106 nurses at the hospital, will hold a strike vote on Monday, July 19, union representatives confirmed on Wednesday.

"We have been meeting for months and the one constant has been the hospital sticking to the large amounts of takeaways they put on the table at the beginning," Ruth O’Hearn, a registered nurse and local MNA chairwoman, said in a news release on Wednesday. "Our members have been clear that they could not work under these proposals. They are also united about the terrible effect these takeaways will have on the quality of patient care they are able to deliver."

Northern Berkshire Healthcare officials said on Wednesday they were disappointed by the union’s decision, but we’re willing to continue negotiations to reach a "mutually acceptable, fair, and affordable contract," while recognizing the hospital’s primary commitment is to its patients and the community.

"It is too bad that the MNA nurses don’t seem to share that commitment. After almost six months at the negotiating table, the registered nurses have consistently avoided any serious discussion of the changes that are needed to keep this community hospital healthy," Art Scott, vice president of human resources at the hospital said in a news release. "The economics and regulation of healthcare are changing fast, and everyone knows it. But it seems our nurses want to make sure that nothing changes. When the MNA says ‘no takeaways,’ they are talking about continuing annual step increases even while the hospital loses money."

The union’s three-year contract expired on March 31. The two sides have been at the bargaining table since January, meeting a total of 10 times in the last six months.

Both sides have filed grievances with the National Labor Relations Board, the most recent being filed by the hospital on June 24 alleging the union was "refusing to bargain in good faith." According to union officials, the hospital’s proposals would "ruin the quality of life" for the nurses by granting management the "right to cancel or add shifts at a moments notice; to change scheduled hours of work without notice or discussion and the ability to mandate overtime, even if a nurse is exhausted or ill."

"We now have very important language that allows nurses to decline overtime if they feel they are too tired or ill to deliver quality care to their patients," Mary McConnell, a registered nurse and local MNA unit co-chairwoman, said. "It is just wrong to think that some management member can decide whether I am able to care for my patients."

Art said that despite assuring the nurses that the hospital has sufficient nurses to care for patients based on Massachusetts care standards, the union is insisting on contractual language that would "have us refuse care to patients or discharge them prematurely if the nurses on duty feel the workload is more than they can handle."

"Now it appears they would even prefer to go on strike, risking their jobs, those of their co-workers, and the community’s hospital, rather than engage in a serious discussion of how we can work together for a healthy hospital," he said.

According to the hospital’s release, the union’s refusal to "recognize the serious financial challenges we face is putting the very future of this hospital in jeopardy."

"Practically no individual or organization in this community is unaffected by the challenge of having to adapt to reduced resources, and we all must rise to this challenge," hospital officials wrote. "Our commitment to patient care must take a long-view; we must ensure our capacity to take care of the region’s patients far into the future."

O’Hearn said the nurses don’t want to strike, but feel they have no other recourse.

"As the hospital continues to claim financial difficulty, we really don’t understand why they are sticking to these disastrous takeaways," she said. "The administration should have come to us as partners; instead they seem to look at us as enemies. Our membership has told us they are at the end of the line, and it is time to take a strike vote."

The union’s bargaining unit will hold a series of informational meetings in the coming weeks for the membership, covering issues such as health insurance, unemployment insurance, temporary employment and writing resumes, in addition to structure and responsibilities during a strike.

This is not the first time the union has called for a strike vote. In 2007, the union voted to strike over changes to its members’ pension plans, but settled with the hospital before the strike was scheduled to happen.

Most recently, the hospital was threatened with a strike by unionized health care workers belonging to Service Employees International Union 1199. However, the two sides settled their differences last December, within days of the planned strike.

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