In the Arena: Nurses take case to seasoned politician, hospital board member

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The concept of “all politics being local” can sometimes be a double-edged sword.

Just ask Greenfield School Committee member and former Selectman and Town Council President Tim Farrell, who learned that the hard way this week when he wound up in the middle of an ongoing labor dispute between Baystate Health System and union nurses at Baystate Franklin Medical Center.

As we know by now, the union staged a one-day work stoppage this past Monday, a move that was preceded by a management lockout that began Sunday night and ran until Wednesday.

It was the second such walkout conducted by the union, but the first time that management decided to lock them out, a move Baystate said was necessary to be able to secure replacement nurses, who weren’t willing to work for just one day.

In addition to the usual pickets, the union’s activities expanded to include a number of events, among them a march to Farrell’s insurance business on Bernardston Road. The stunt was billed as an attempt to lobby for Farrell’s support as a volunteer member of the Baystate Health Systems board of directors, a position he has only held for a short time.

Farrell clearly didn’t appreciate the move, which he felt was tantamount to the union barking up the wrong tree.

“As a board, we deal with fiscal policy, but we don’t handle contract negotiations,” Farrell said. “That’s done at the management level.”

Ironically, that’s been the union’s argument all along. The rank-and-file believe that, while Baystate Franklin management is eager to reach agreement on a new contract, Springfield is pushing a more hardline negotiating approach, the lockout included.

“This is not about Springfield, but the whole system,” Farrell said. “It’s a balancing act, but Baystate still believes in keeping local care local.”

Farrell says there are those who believe that the system would do better as a more centralized operation.

“We’ve had consultants tell us that we’d do better as one operation than as a bunch of community hospitals,” Farrell said. “But we like the way it is set up now, with individual facilities having a certain amount of autonomy.”

Farrell said had Baystate not taken over operations at the Franklin, there’s a good chance the hospital would have either closed or, at the very least, had a very difficult time remaining solvent. And though he feels for the nurses and felt his conversations with them were positive, he didn’t like the way they came about.

“I’ve been in the game for a long time, but this is the first time I’ve been marched on,” Farrell said. “And I don’t feel it was productive.”

Farrell’s no stranger to protests. There was that time he got a bag of chicken bones thrown at him at a Town Council meeting by a protester unhappy with his position on French King Highway rezoning.

This, he said, was different, because he’s never been afraid to talk issues with anyone.

“I’ve never been a tough guy to find, and I’ve always tried to be approachable,” he added. “They could easily have made an appointment.”

Farrell said he found out about the march from a number of his friends who are union nurses, and were equally as uncomfortable with the move.

“I started getting calls from people telling me this was on the agenda, but that they wouldn’t be attending and didn’t agree with it,” Farrell said.

He also isn’t sure the decision to march on his office was just a union thing.

“I have a feeling there are certain people who are outside of this negotiation who don’t agree with me politically who may have encouraged this move, and that’s unfortunate,” Farrell said. “This isn’t how we do things in Greenfield, or at least it shouldn’t be.”

Talking to the union members, it’s hard not to feel empathy for their plight in these talks, especially when you’ve been on the receiving end of their care and know how hard they work.

Farrell shares that sympathy, but says this is not the last fiscal argument we are likely to experience in a health care system headed for what appears to be rapid changes not necessarily for the better.

“If the cuts being talked about (at the federal level) happen, it’s going to impact the entire health care system, right down to the smallest community hospitals, Franklin included,” Farrell said.

“When it comes to the nurse’s contract, my view is ‘this too shall pass’,” Farrell said. “But it’s important to recognize that it’s not one side versus another, because we are all in this together, even though it may not always feel like it.”

A sentiment I hope both sides will remember the next time they sit down at the bargaining table.

Chris Collins is a former staff reporter for the Recorder.