OHSU lab workers launch union drive


They did the research. Now they’re signing the card. | PHOTO BY DAVID KREISMAN, COURTESY OREGON AFSCME

Oregon AFSCME on Oct. 17 started collecting union authorization cards from research workers at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU). If at least half sign cards within six months, state law requires OHSU to recognize a union for about 2,000 workers in its laboratories. Known as Research Workers Union-AFSCME, the unit would include workers who conduct lab experiments, order equipment, file paperwork, and care for animals used in studies. It would not cover the faculty members who apply for grants and lead the research.

Workers started organizing in secret about three years ago and made their plans public last year in order to reach more people, said Oregon AFSCME organizer Damon Di Cicco.

Di Cocco said a new state law that lets public sector workers submit union cards electronically is making the campaign easier.

OHSU hasn’t directly interfered with the campaign, said Organizing Committee member Ray Jackson, but in April it announced it was giving all research workers 10% raises. Jackson suspects that was an attempt to cool organizing by addressing workers’ complaints about low pay, but he says it backfired. Most of the labs are funded through grants that provide a set amount of money, and OHSU didn’t provide extra money to fill the gap.

Jackson is a clinical research assistant in the Knight Cancer Institute, where he coordinates clinical studies for sarcoma treatments. In his first three months on the job, Jackson saw at least four coworkers quit.

He says it’s difficult to create a lasting career in the lab because OHSU considers research jobs like his as “stepping stones” for students on their way to medical school.

“OHSU sort of treats it like we should be happy for getting this valuable experience to help us on our career paths,” Jackson said.

By unionizing, Jackson said lab workers might be able to push OHSU to provide “bridge funding” to supplement lab budgets beyond grants, and give them a chance to progress in the job they’re already doing.            

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