Dispute over contract for nurses drags on at Baystate Franklin Medical Center
GREENFIELD — When nurses lined the side of High Street one 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,” said Donna Stern, a nurse and co-chairwoman of the local union. “When nurses go on strike, it’s a symptom of a larger problem. 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 in 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 decision-making 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 debate about overtime — whether it will stay 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 making overtime unnecessary was discussed, but ultimately the sides could not 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 (except 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. 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 have used a federal mediator, who has been present at negotiation sessions for well over a year.