By Don McIntosh
Well, that got their attention. After trying for over a year to get a first-ever union contract by asking and waiting, 143 medical technologists at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend tried striking instead, walking off the job March 4, eighteen months after they joined Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (OFNHP).
Nine days later, they returned to work after St. Charles management agreed to a union proposal to resume negotiations and hammer out a deal by March 31. Hospital representatives who had met with union negotiators just once in three months now will meet four days a week until they have a deal.
Union support seems to have grown since workers voted 90-34 to join OFNHP on Sept. 5, 2019. Faced with intransigence and disrespect, 145 workers voted to authorize the strike—94% of the bargaining unit. The workers are specialists in 22 separate fields, including anesthesia, surgery, nuclear medicine, endoscopy, pharmacy, and diagnostic technologies like ultrasound, X-ray, and CAT scan. That means they’re not easy to replace.
In bargaining, St. Charles played a combination of hardball and hard-to-get. OFNHP spokesperson Shane Burley said hospital negotiators refused to agree to the kind of standard union step pay schedule in which workers at the same experience and skill level are paid the same for the same work. Despite Bend’s high cost of living, Burley said the St. Charles techs are very underpaid compared to their counterparts in Portland. St. Charles also balked at the standard “union security” clause (a requirement that all represented workers share the union representation costs). Instead, the hospital adopted the stance of anti-union “right-to-work” states, which insist that union dues be voluntary, in order to bleed unions of resources.
Federal law requires union employers to meet and bargain in good faith, but after meeting 28 times, St. Charles management walked out after a Dec. 3 negotiating session and declined to schedule further meetings. Months passed. OFNHP said repeatedly it was ready and available to meet any time, even nights, weekends, and holidays. On Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, OFNHP members held informational pickets to demand that St. Charles Medical Center return to the table. St. Charles agreed, but wouldn’t consider any dates before March 10.
So OFNHP held the strike vote, and on Feb. 22, gave a legally required 10-day strike notice. Normally when that happens, employers scramble to make a deal to avoid the disruption. Not St. Charles, which was content to stick with a scheduled March 10 session with a mediator, six days into the strike.
St. Charles even asked a federal court to prevent the strike, but its plea was rejected by the judge.
Workers walked off the job to cheers and elbow bumps from doctors and nurses at the hospital. And on their picket line, strikers experienced firsthand the support of the community. Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel and State Rep. Jason Kropf (D-Bend) walked the picket line with them. So did members of other local unions. The Teamsters union sanctioned the strike so represented truck drivers could refuse to cross the picket lines for deliveries. At least 270 supporters contributed a total of $36,000 to a union strike fund GoFundMe page. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) tweeted support for their cause.
Meanwhile, inside, the strike was having an impact.
St. Charles brought in some temporary replacements, but it’s not clear how effective they were. The hospital diverted patients and cancelled procedures.
In the end, the two sides were able to agree to get back to the table. OFNHP called an end to the strike, and workers returned to the hospital March 15.