Governor has role in settlement of OHSU nurse's strike

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber met privately in Salem with Oregon Nurses Association (ONA) Labor Relations Administrator Ken Fitzsimon and Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) President Dr. Peter Kohler days before a marathon mediation session lead to a settlement in the 56-day nurses strike in Portland.

The meeting was arranged during a strategy session with the nurse's union and leaders of the AFL-CIO that included Oregon labor federation President Tim Nesbitt, Northwest Oregon Labor Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer Judy O'Connor, national AFL-CIO Special Assistant George Curtin, and Ken Allen, executive director of Oregon Council 75 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 4,000 classified workers at OHSU.

According to ONA spokeswoman Claudia Brown, with a special session of the Legislature looming to discuss budget shortfalls, Governor Kitzhaber encouraged both Kohler and Fitzsimon to "find a solution" to the dispute. Kitzhaber asked Kohler to get directly involved in the negotiations.

"We had felt for some time that the hospital's existing bargaining team wasn't budging; nothing was happening," said Brown. "Dr. Kohler helped move some things along and we're very appreciative of that."

Kohler was at the bargaining table during parts of the 33-hour session that ended Feb. 8 with a new three-year contract.

About 1,500 nurses represented by ONA went on strike Dec. 17 over issues of wages, health insurance and working conditions. It was the first nurses strike ever at OHSU and the first in Oregon since 1990.

Nurses ratified the contract Feb. 10 by a vote of 736 to 118. They started returning to work Feb. 13 - with a unity march into the hospital at 6 a.m.

Nurses will receive raises of 7 percent in each of the next two years and at least 6.5 percent (possibly higher than that, depending on a study of area wage rates) in the third year. The first raise is retroactive to Sept. 30, 2001. The union had sought a wage hike of 19 percent over two years to bring OHSU nurses up to market wages. The university was offering a 20 percent raise over 39 months - a 6 percent raise for each of the next three years and a 2 percent raise for the three months after that.

The hospital agreed to pay an additional $30 a month for health insurance ( $445 per month in the first year, $475 per month in the second year and $505 per month in the third) and committed to pursue a self-insurance preferred provider organization plan by 2003 in order to control costs.

Nurses and the university also agreed to changes in tuition and incentive pay for overtime, and the contract guarantees union access to the workplace. OHSU initially wanted to ban use of e-mail for correspondence between the union and its membership.

The settlement came less than a week after the Oregon Employment Relations Board ruled that OHSU had violated state labor law; a poll that showed public sympathy squarely with the nurses; and a stepped-up letter-writing campaign by affiliates of the Northwest Oregon Labor Council to the hospital's board of directors urging them to get involved in settling the dispute.

"This was a very high-profile strike, not only for the ONA but for the labor movement in Oregon," said Tim Nesbitt, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. "I think labor rallied to the cause and we were happy to help. But the nurses earned it."

Brown said the hospital on several occasions tried to use the ONA's affiliation with "big labor" as a weapon against the nurses. "It backfired," she said. "I think it (the affiliation) helped empower the nurses. This is a whole new ballgame for them. It was helpful when they were able to talk to other union members at rallies. Contacts were made and it was all very positive."

The American Nurses Association and its union arm, United American Nurses, joined the AFL-CIO last year. The union won a mini-battle in January when the Employment Relations Board agreed unanimously with an unfair labor practice complaint that the hospital was breaking labor law by paying scab nurses more than they offered the bargaining unit in the last contract proposal.

The hospital tried to entice nurses to return to work by offering them $7.50 more an hour under the guise that it was "critical need incentive pay." CNI is paid only for specifically designated hours worked after a nurse has completed a regular shift.

"OHSU broke the law and resorted to bribery in an effort to weaken the strike,"said Alan Yoder, legal counsel with ONA.

Brown said the union will pursue monetary remedies on the unfair labor practice ruling and hold hearings later this month concerning strikebreaking members.

OHSU spent over $4 million for out-of-state replacement nurses, including their food and lodging, and strike-related security.

February 15, 2002 issue

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