Striking nurses find community support

More than 700 supporters of striking nurses at Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU) in southwest Portland mobilized for a morning solidarity march Dec. 27. Staff and members from more than 20 unions gathered at the offices of the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA) at 1010 SW Gibbs, joining hundreds of striking nurses to march several blocks to OHSU. In the crowd were nurses from other hospitals as far away as Corvallis.

Only a few rounds of talks have been held since the strike began Dec. 17. As of Dec. 31 - following a 12-hour mediation session Dec. 28 - there was no end in sight to the two-week-old strike by 1,500 registered nurses.

Wages are the main point of disagreement. At the close of session Dec. 28, ONA and management were separated by 4 percentage points in their disagreement over the size of the increase.

Several months ago, OHSU was offering a wage increase of 7 percent over two years. That offer increased at least three times and now stands at 14 percent. ONA has reduced its initial request of 29 percent to 18 percent.

Nurses see a substantial wage increase as the only way to address the severe nursing shortage that has created unacceptable working conditions, with overtime and high patient loads. A significant pay increase, they believe, may encourage new entrants to the profession and keep existing nurses from leaving.

"They need to pay people what they're worth," said ONA negotiator Kathleen Sheridan.

Registered nurses at OHSU start at $17 an hour and top out at $27. Sheridan says that's 12 to 19 percent below other leading hospitals in Oregon. OHSU says pay is equivalent.

"For a number of years they said to the nurses, 'We can't afford to pay you any more. We can't afford to give you even a 2 percent or 1 percent raise,'" Sheridan said. "So the nurses were very good about it in those times and they said, 'Okay, we'll take no raise if in the good years, you remember us.' Well, now that they're having good years, they suddenly have forgotten that conversation."

ONA is one of several dozen affiliates of the 100,000-member United American Nurses, a division of the American Nurses Association that joined the AFL-CIO in May 2001. Seven months later, they are feeling the strength of that alliance.

Teamster drivers have refused to cross picket lines to make deliveries.

Local 8 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is offering striking nurses work on the Portland docks, starting with a Jan. 4 orientation session. [The union has made similar offers to other striking workers over the years, including nurses at Kaiser Permanente.]

Tim Nesbitt, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, said the decision by OHSU management not to end the strike will prove costly in the long run as it loses the support of the community. The state labor federation has placed OHSU on its Unfair List, calling on union supporters not to patronize the hospital for the duration of the strike.

Wally Mehrens, executive secretary-treasurer of the Columbia-Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council, pointed out in a letter read at the Dec. 27 rally that labor has helped raise over $2 million for OHSU's Doernbecher Children's Hospital.

"To think these very worthwhile efforts may have put these hospitals in the position to undercut your efforts to raise, even slightly, your standard of living, sickens me," wrote Mehrens, who pledged to meet with the board of directors of the BULL Session, an alliance of union, business and legislative leaders that raise funds for charitable organizations, and every building trades affiliate to reassess their fundraising efforts.

With 11,000 workers, OHSU is the largest employer in Portland and the fourth largest in Oregon.

OHSU separated from the state system of higher education in 1995 to become a "non-profit public corporation" governed by a nine-member board appointed by the governor. Board members include former U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield and former Port of Portland Director Mike Thorne. Since 1996, OHSU's annual budget has doubled from $500 million to $1 billion.

Sheridan doesn't buy the argument that OHSU can't afford what the union is asking. "This hospital has the money but what they're doing is diverting it to things that are away from patient care.

"You can't just look at the $33 million in profit they declared," Sheridan said. "They have a master plan to set aside $500 million to create new buildings, new wings, a whole new complex down at the bottom of the hill. There certainly is no recession at OHSU."

About 100 union members reportedly are crossing picket lines to work at OHSU during the strike, joined by several hundred replacement nurses who are paid $52 an hour, plus room and board. Union leaders say patient care at OHSU is suffering during the strike, and have established a patient care hotline to monitor quality of care inside. The number is 503-499-1138.

Because there is a severe nursing shortage nationwide, striking nurses are in the unusual situation of being instantly reemployable at other area hospitals through local temp agencies. Of the 21 local temp agencies that place nurses, nine have pledged to honor the strike by refusing to staff OHSU, while 12 have refused. One agency, Unlimited Staff Relief, even agreed to contribute financially to the ONA Strike Fund when OHSU nurses work for the agency. Nurses can earn more doing temporary work than they do at OHSU, a situation which may allow them to strike at length.

For more information about the strike or to help with picketing, call ONA at 503-916-4382.

Picketing is taking place 24 hours a day. Supporters are also urged to call OHSU President Peter Kohler to tell him to settle the strike. Regular updates about the strike are available on the strike hotline, 503-916-4381.

January 4, 2002 issue

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