The Fallacy of Objective Journalism on the Baystate Nurses’ Strike

Pleasing everyone and revealing nothing

ROJAS OLIVA

At Greenfield’s Baystate Franklin Medical Center (BFMC), nurses’ health care premiums had shot up 26 percent in the past year. Baystate nurses were working thousands of shifts longer than 12 hours, despite studies detailing how shifts this long makes them more prone to errors on the job. Furthermore, data shows that nursing has one of the highest rates of occupational injury and illness in any profession.

In the face of clearly overworked employees, management repeatedly failed to bargain in good faith; bargaining sessions would often drag on for 12 hours or more, while nurses worked without a contract for months. So they went on strike. 200 nurses affiliated with the Massachusetts Nurses Association walked out on June 26th.

After the strike was announced, management promptly declared it “illegal” without a ruling from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—an independent federal agency with a board appointed by the President of the United States tasked with investigating claims of unfair labor practices—making their proclamation the judicial equivalent of me declaring the letter ‘s’ illegal: meaningless and absurd. Tellingly, management made the disturbing decision to lock the nurses out of the hospital for three days—an action with no precedent for MNA nurses.

“The Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) has been around since 1903, doing union negotiations since the mid ’60’s and there’s never been a bargaining unit that’s been locked out,” Sr. Chair of the BFMC bargaining unit, MNA state board member and registered nurse Donna Stern told me on the picket line.

A media that fails to investigate beyond official narratives leaves our communities vulnerable to unchecked exploitations, violence and oppressions of all types. It’s writing that ruffles no feathers, meant to please everyone and reveal nothing.

Numerous local news outlets promulgated management’s line about the strike being “illegal,” and their coverage reveals a peculiar monopoly Baystate has on the local media narrative that emerged from the strike. Moments after the nurses themselves found out about the lockout, The Recorder published an article under the headline: “Hospital to lock out nurses for 3 days for planned ‘illegal strike.’” The reason the strike was illegal? The article let hospital president Cindy Russo explain: “We were speaking with our legal [advisers] around that and once we determined this was the action that we could take, that’s when we took the action.”

What could this sentence possibly mean and under what possible logic was it printed? In the article, Stern lays out Baystate’s history of calling strikes illegal only to have their complaints struck down by the NLRB, yet no attempt to reconcile these two views or investigate which is more accurate follows. Clearly this reporter simply got their two quotes that, in theory, represented both sides, and called it day without resolving contradictions or obtaining more information necessary to explain the dispute. The bizarre nature of the article continues when the article references how The Recorder obtained the news of the lockout via a press release from Baystate while the nurses were still in negotiations.

“Collectively we’re in shock that they’ll do a press release like that right in the middle of when we’re trying to reach a settlement,” Stern is quoted as saying in the article. “That’s disturbing to us.”

It’s disturbing to the nurses because it’s a clear indication of Baystate’s ability to set the tone for how the public will perceive the strike before it even happens, to use public disapproval as a weapon in negotiations, a fact The Recorder doesn’t acknowledge. Bad press for the nurses does not end with The Recorder.

3980 |

shifts longer than 12hrs

2768 |

times nurses could not leave after their 12hr shifts

1193 |

times nurses could not leave after their 8hr shifts

433 |

13hr+ shifts

70 |

14hr+ shift

131 |

15hr+ shifts

22 |

16hr+ shifts

5 |

17hr+ shifts

17.5 |

longest shift, in hours

The MNA BFMC Committee

The day before the strike, Channel 22 News ran the headline: “Baystate to lock-out unionized nurses, calls nurses’ strike ‘illegal.’” In this case, no alternate view regarding legality is presented.

This same one-sided narrative applies for the reasoning behind the lockout. The hospital claims the lockout was necessary as they could only contract traveling nurses for three days. However, the nurses understood the lockout as a retaliatory measure both given the wider trend of hospital management locking out nurses on strike this year and that Baystate often hires travelers for limited periods. Yet, most publications simply ran claims that the lockout was necessary as the hospital could only hire travelers for periods of three days, or again presented both views with no attempt to reconcile them, leaving everything floating in authoritative newsworthy “objectivity,” which, in this case was, actually, subjective.

Channel 22 News almost got it right when they allowed management to explain the retaliatory nature of the lockout—”the hospital says the strike is illegal and that’s why they are locking the nurses out for an additional 48 hours”—but still managed to let them slip in an unquestioned justification of illegality.

That particular article ends with this quote from a Baystate press release: “We presented the MNA with a comprehensive proposal and were prepared to negotiate as long as it would take to come to terms. It is so disturbing that the MNA’s bargaining committee ended negotiations, unwilling to continue discussions today and unwilling to agree to the next bargaining date.”

This is coming from a company churning out press releases about how they’re going to lockout their nurses…while still in negotiations.

The absurdity continues in another article from Western Mass News: “‘Staffing is [the nurse’s] concern. From our numbers and data, that is an unfounded concern,’ said Cindy Russo, president and chief administrative officer at Baystate Franklin.”

The hospital’s claim goes unchecked, turning the entire affair into a “he said, she said” with no clear conclusion for the reader.

In sum, this pattern of ambiguity applies for how the entire press dealt with the question of the legality of the strike, the necessity of the demands and the nature of the lockout. The consequence of this is that anyone entering the story with prejudices—the fairness of the free market and the greed of unions, on one hand, or the cruelty of the profit motive and the need for organization to stand up against the exploitation of workers under capitalism, on the other—will leave with those ideas unquestioned and unchallenged. It’s writing that ruffles no feathers, meant to please everyone and reveal nothing.

A cursory glance at a May letter to Baystate president Cindy Russo would have revealed that the nurses back their claims with the following hard numbers:

“There were 3,980 shifts that were longer than 12 hours. 2,768 times 12 hour nurses could not leave at the end of their shifts. 1,193 times nurses who were scheduled to work 8 hours were not able to stop working for more than 12 hours! There were 433 shifts of 13 hours or more; 70 shifts of 14 hours or more, 131 shifts of 15 hours or more, 22 shifts of 16 hours or more and 5 shifts of 17 hours or more! It is illegal for an RN ever to work 16 or more hours even in a declared federal or state emergency. But your [Baystate’s] data show that this happened 27 times. The longest shift was 17.5 hours.”

These are not claims that Baystate ever challenged with counter data in any press release or any reporter ever questioned Baystate about. The closest to a direct comment on the nurses demands comes in a quote from a letter Russo sent the nurses, printed in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

“This is a difficult time for all of us,” Russo said in the letter. “We remain committed to working in good faith with the MNA to reach a new contract for our nurses. We also recognize the need to pull together once we pass this challenge so we can work together to care for our patients.”

This call for prioritizing patient care from a boss purposely running a hospital with nurses working brutal shifts and who arbitrarily labels actions meant to improve these conditions ‘illegal’ is printed without a hint of irony.

We need bold journalists willing to question narratives of complacency, willing to call racists racists, to call exploitation exploitation—or at the very least who will attempt to find out what’s what.

Then there are the omissions. The Valley Advocate never ran a story on the strike. Although the paper’s “about” page blusters that they’re “not afraid to take risks, to pick fights” because “this is not your grandmother’s newspaper,” they shied away from taking on Corporate America. Instead, they used their platform to cover an eight person protest that took place three days after the strike over Baystate’s use of live animals in surgical training. The story makes the daring claim that “a pig is not a person,” and clearly The Advocate is convinced that only the exploitation of one deserves coverage.

Since Baystate is the largest employer in Western Massachusetts, the nature of this class-based struggle signals to all employers what the norms for labor relations are, how to deal with striking workers, and how the media will report on it.

A media that fails to investigate beyond official narratives leaves our communities vulnerable to unchecked exploitations, violence and oppressions of all types. Whether the story involves strikes, police brutality, natural disasters, or violence at neo-Nazi rallies, we cannot allow this to be an age of equivocation, centrality or unquestioned narratives.

The case of media coverage of the Baystate nurses strike calls into question local journalism’s approach to covering labor conflicts in a neutral or objective way. If official press releases continue to go to print unquestioned, when the next Katrina or Flint strikes there might be no reporters searching for the truth. It is not a time to worry about political polarization and rush to the center to protect the civility of democracy. We need bold journalists willing to question narratives of complacency, willing to call racists racists, to call exploitation exploitation—or at the very least who will attempt to find out what’s what. And this need for stronger local journalism in the face of escalating climate disasters, white supremacy, inequality and labor exploitation reflects a wider need for stronger local communities. This is a lesson the nurses can teach all of us.


Rojas Oliva is a student at Amherst College studying Biology and Environmental Studies. Tune into his radio show, Uncultured, to hear three small brownies talk about climate change, cumbias and filthy garage rock every Thursday from 8-10PM.