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One year after nurses strike, no end in sight


Greenfield Recorder 10/11/2013, Page A01

By CHRIS SHORES Recorder Staff

GREENFIELD — When nurses lined the side of High Street on an October day just over one year ago, waving picket signs as honking cars drove by, they had hoped their one-day strike against Baystate Franklin Medical Center would be enough to push contract  negotiations in their favor.

But hospital officials insisted then, and still do now, that financial necessity calls for a change in their overtime pay model from daily to weekly. The two sides have been unable to find middle ground on the issue and so their two-year contract dispute drags on — with no apparent end in sight.

“It’s been a very difficult year. It’s been an expensive year,” said Steven Bradley, vice president of government and community relations and public affairs for the hospital’s parent company Baystate Health.

“The energy that has gone into continuously  and unsuccessfully being able to negotiate  resolution to this contract has not been helpful in our ability to continue to fully focus on our patients and the communities that we serve,” he said.

Nurses, meanwhile, have argued for the past year that medical services are slowly but surely slipping away from the hospital and traveling south to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. The hospital disagrees.

As part of its campaign to keep services local, the union organized a community forum in March, created ballot resolutions for several  Franklin County towns in April and hosted a rally outside the hospital in July.

The strike “awoke the community. It really brought the community (together) in a way they weren’t involved before,” said Donna Stern, a nurse and co-chair of the local union.

“When nurses go on strike, it’s a symptom of a larger problem,” she said. “It’s not just what’s happening to nurses. It’s about what’s happening to this hospital.”

A larger fight

Both sides agree that if local nurses and hospital officials were the only ones involved in these negotiations, the dispute would have been settled long ago. Bradley said that the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents the Greenfield nurses, has invested its resources into a massive campaign against the health system.

“This has gone from being a local contract negotiation to a contract  negotiation that has statewide and national implications,” he said, referring to the potential overtime change. “It’s such an important statewide and national issue for the MNA and … that’s where the decisionmaking and strategic thinking comes from.” But the nurses say that Baystate Health is to blame, calling  it a “corporate  giant” that calls the shots while only thinking of the financial bottom line.

“We know that our local managers  did not come up with these proposals,”  said Stern. “The corporate entity shifts these proposals north and is trying to implement (them in) our workplace.”

The debate about overtime — whether it will stay the status quo with daily bonus pay or switch to a weekly model that would kick in after a nurse works 40 hours — has kept the sides from settling.

In April, it seemed they were close to an agreement. The idea of a new task force that would try to find strategies to remove the need for overtime all-together was discussed, but ultimately the sides couldn’t agree on the details.

Then, in July, the hospital mailed letters to all nurses outlining their new offer: daily overtime would continue until December 2014 (save for a one-hour grace period) before switching to the weekly model. The union turned it down.

Last month, the union voted to turn to binding arbitration to settle the contract dispute. Stern said  the nurses were willing to live  with the ruling  in order to end  the dispute.  Hospital officials,   though,  said they were uncomfortable  with a third  party, unfamiliar  to the situation,  making a binding  ruling. The  two sides have disagreed on the extent they’ve used a federal mediator, who has been present at negotiation sessions for well over a year.

Effects on the community

 Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, said that constituent calls about the dispute have “come in waves.” At times, there’s been a lot of attention on the debate, he said. Other months have been quiet, said Mark, which led some people to think a solution is near.  “I think the longer the situation continues, the worse it is for the community,” he said. “The more negative the publicity that surrounds  the contract talks, the more people are going to lose confidence in what’s going on up at the hospital — and we definitely don’t want that to happen.”

Mayor William Martin said he believes that local residents have not yet lost their pride in the hospital. And Martin, a retired nurse, also believes that outside forces are at play in this contract negotiation — the effects of national and state health care reform reaching its way into Greenfield.  While he can identify with the nurses’ desire to fight to maintain status quo on policies like overtime  pay, he also understands the hospital’s need to find cost-saving measures in order to provide a wide range of medical procedures to the community.   And he pointed out that “a loss of services … might be a reality of the day.” The nurses criticized Baystate Franklin’s reduction of pediatric services, but Northampton’s Cooley Dickinson Hospital just announced it was closing its inpatient pediatric unit, too, he pointed out.

Cooley Dickinson officials cited a decline in the number of young patients requiring hospital stays as the rationale behind closing the unit — the same answer given by Baystate Franklin president Chuck Gijanto in response to the nurses’ charges earlier this spring.

What’s next?

There’s no indication that either side will budge anytime soon on their overtime stance, but it’s unclear what the next steps will be as the standoff continues. Hospital and nurse leaders declined to tip their hand too much or speculate to a large degree about the future. Nurses are still hoping the hospital  will come around to arbitration,  after officially offering their proposal during a bargaining session  last month. If that fails, the union will try to get the community and elected officials more involved in their effort, said Stern.

No one has ruled out another strike down the road, but it would first need an approval vote from the nurses. In recent months, two nurses wrote opinion pieces in the The Recorder criticizing the union — but Stern dismissed those comments  and insists the nurses are united. The strike last year “showed nurses how strong we can actually be if we stand together,” she said.  Bradley, who said the past year has reinvigorated Baystate Health’s interest and investment in the Greenfield community, said he can’t imagine what another strike would do to Franklin County residents.  “It (would) be devastating to the community … really devastating to the employees and the hospital,” he said.

You can reach Chris Shores at: cshores@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264