Providence Milwaukie nurses fight for first contract, agency shop

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

More than a year after voting 3-to-1 to join the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, AFL-CIO, 110 registered nurses at Providence Milwaukie Hospital in Clackamas County are still without a first union contract.

If an agreement isn't reached soon, nurses say they may strike - not over wages, but over their right to have a union.

More than any other issue, the nurses are insistent on having a provision in their contract known as "agency shop" - a requirement that all employees in the unit share the cost of union representation. Nurses say whether they have agency shop will determine whether their union will be strong enough to win their other demands - an effective voice on the job, acceptable wages and benefits, and healthy nurse-to-patient staffing ratios.

A month after negotiations began in March 2002, nurses submitted to management a petition calling for agency shop, signed by 92 of the 108 workers in the unit.

"We won't do without it," said nurse Laura Beaulaurier.

Providence Health System began as a single hospital founded in 1859 by the Sisters of Providence, an order of Catholic nuns; today it employs more than 32,000 workers at 20 hospitals and numerous clinics and other facilities in five states. To agree to an agency shop, Providence management says, would go against Catholic doctrine.

"We are an institution that follows Catholic social teachings," Providence Milwaukie spokesperson Mary King told the NW Labor Press. Requiring nurses to pay union dues would violate Catholic teachings on freedom of association, King said.

Nurses aren't buying that argument. They dispute the hospital's interpretation of Catholic doctrine, and they say the religious claims are intended to disguise the real motive for opposing agency shop.

"It's about power. It really comes down to that," added Sue Ritacco, a nurse in the critical care unit who serves on the bargaining team. "We want to be able to help make the decisions that affect our work."

Ritacco points out that agency shop doesn't require that workers become members of the union - just that they share the costs of representation.

To counter the doctrinal argument, several Catholic priests have come forward in the nurses' defense, and union supporters hope to meet with the local archbishop to plead their case.

If it's a matter of religious principle, union leaders ask, why has management signed agency shop agreements with other groups of workers in the Providence system?

At Providence Portland Medical Center and Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, 40 to 50 workers who belong to Operating Engineers Local 701 have such a clause in their contract.

"You don't have any union strength without it," said Local 701 organizer Cherry Harris. If management is collecting dues and dues are voluntary, Harris said, management knows who the union supporters are, and there are powerful incentives not to pay. Plus, workers who do pay resent those who don't, and permanent division replaces the unity workers need to win decent contracts.

If their religious argument fails, Providence managers have another at the ready: They say agency shop will make it harder to attract and retain nurses. If union dues become obligatory at Providence Milwaukie, King said, nurses might leave to work at Providence St. Vincent or Providence Portland Medical Center, where dues are voluntary.

That's preposterous, says Michael O'Leary, of the Oregon Nurses Association, which represents roughly 2,000 nurses at those two hospitals. "They do not have any evidence of any nurse leaving their place of work because they didn't want to pay union dues."

Gordon Lafer, assistant professor at the Labor Education and Research Center of the University of Oregon, is working on a comprehensive review of the research on the impact of unionization in health care. Lafer said despite a mountain of studies on nurse recruitment and retention, not one shows that having agency shop hurts hospitals' ability to attract or keep nurses. [On the other hand, he said, pay and staffing levels are the top two factors impacting recruitment and retention, and both of those correlate with unionization.]

In fact, O'Leary would like to see nurses at other Providence hospitals get agency shop. "The organization is stronger when everybody contributes," O'Leary said. "For solidarity to be felt in a movement, people need to be able to look around and see that everybody's pulling their weight." Open shop - where union dues are voluntary - does have at least one upside, O'Leary said: It can keep pressure on a union to stay in touch with members, since the union must continually show what it's doing.

But management knows how significant agency shop is to the strength of the union, O'Leary added, and that's why they fight it. So far, he said, Providence has been willing in bargaining to make economic concessions rather than give in to agency shop. He predicted nurses will have to be willing to fight for it to win it.

Other sticking points besides agency shop remain in the Providence Milwaukie negotiations. Nurses want some say in hospital governance - to help make decisions on equipment, rules on admitting, and nurse-to-patient ratios, which would determine staffing levels. Staffing levels are key to reducing workload, stress and overtime. They also have a lot to do with improved patient care.

From the get-go, Providence Milwaukie nurses have waged a very public campaign. Last summer, at a Milwaukie parade and at the Providence system's annual Bridgepedal fundraiser, nurses passed out fliers.

On Dec. 3, union supporters convened a panel of community leaders to hear testimony from Providence Milwaukie nurses. The panelists are members of the Workers Rights Board - a project of Portland Jobs With Justice in which political, religious, and other leaders pledge to use their influence to defend workers' rights. The panel included Catholic priest Don Buxman from Milwaukie's Christ the King Church.

As about 300 nurses and community members looked on, panelists listened to the testimony and concluded that Providence Health System is not conforming to its own professed values. Since the hearing, panelists have been trying to set up a meeting with Providence chief executive officer Russ Danielson, without success.

Will Danielson agree to meet with them? "We are looking to keep negotiations at the negotiating table," King answered.

Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt was able to meet with Danielson in December, but said Danielson didn't commit to any settlement.

Nurses are calling on supporters to join them Wednesday, Feb. 12, for a rally from 4:15 to 5 p.m. at 1235 NE 47th (just north of Glisan St.) in Portland, the location of the Providence Health System regional office. There, Providence Milwaukie nurses will be joined by several nurses from Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, Calif., who last month voted to join Service Employees International Union and are also fighting to win a first contract. Together with members of the Workers Rights Board panel, they plan to present Danielson a "Valentine message."

February 7, 2003 issue

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