Providence Milwaukie nurses win hard-fought first contract

It took two years, but a group of 115 nurses at Providence Milwaukie Hospital finally got their first contract — approved 75-1 in a Nov. 14 vote.

The nurses joined Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (OFNHP) in December 2001, but management delayed recognition, and when bargaining began in March 2002, it soon stalled over the hospital’s refusal to agree to “union shop,” the requirement that all employees share the responsibility to pay union dues. Workers held out for union shop because they feared the union would be weak if they accepted an “open shop,” in which dues would be voluntary.

After a one-day strike in July and nearly a year of pickets, rallies and other demonstrations of community support, union leaders concluded they’d have to accept open shop to get a first contract. Less than a week after the union bargaining team dropped the union shop demand, Providence made substantial improvements in its offer.

The hospital agreed to overhaul its pay system, scrapping a management-determined merit-pay set-up and replacing it with a pay system based on years of experience. The new system, to be instituted in the first year of the two-year contract, means pay cuts for none, and substantial raises for some. In the second year, all nurses will get a 4.5 percent across-the-board raise. Also, the hospital agreed to set up a worker-management Nurse Practice Committee to address staffing, workload and safety issues. Workers had voted to reject a less generous offer Oct. 21.

Aside from open shop, it’s a good contract, said critical care nurse Tia Ray, the unit’s vice president. Ray said open shop was a hard pill to swallow, but that the group still hopes to win union shop in a future contract. “We were such a small fish in such a big system,” Ray said, “that unless we got support from other facilities, we could never win union shop.”

The Providence Health System contains 20 hospitals, totaling more than 32,000 workers. To make headway in the future, Providence unions intend to work in closer cooperation.

The OFNHP contract at Providence Milwaukie in Clackamas County expires Dec. 31, 2005, the same day as the independent Oregon Nurses Association contract at Providence St. Vincent Hospital in Portland.

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