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Oregon nurses on strike

By Paul Dean and Eric Ruder | January 4, 2002 | Page 11

PORTLAND, Ore.--More than 700 striking nurses rallied December 27 outside Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) hospital. Nurses and workers from 20 other unions joined them for the demonstration.

More than 1,500 nurses--members of the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA)--have been on strike since December 17 after 72 percent rejected management's offer of a 14 percent raise over a 27-month period and shamefully meager health care benefits.

The nurses are striking for a more than 20 percent raise over 24 months, starting with a 9 percent raise in the first year, plus an increase in OHSU's contribution to health benefits.

Nurses at OHSU are paid 12 to 19 percent less than nurses at other hospitals in the area. As a consequence, OHSU has trouble recruiting and retaining registered nurses, which has led to chronic understaffing that cuts into the quality of patient care.

Laurie Volk, a nurse who used to work in the critical care area of OHSU, often skipped breaks out of fear of leaving a patient in pain. "It was rare that I went home at the end of the day feeling like I was able to do a good job," she said, explaining that she left the intensive care unit because of the stress.

ONA's offer would cost the hospital $8.4 million more than management's best offer--a pittance compared to OHSU's $39 million in profits last fiscal year. But OHSU has brought in scabs at $54 an hour, and the hospital is spending an extra $500,000 a week in an attempt to force the union to back down.

Since the strike, OHSU has been so understaffed that conditions are said to be "unsafe and downright scary," according to inside sources.

Workers as well as hospital bosses throughout the region are watching OHSU. "This is just the beginning," said Mary Algatt, an emergency room nurse at Providence St. Vincent Hospital. Algatt and other St. Vincent nurses have joined picket lines at OHSU.

If OHSU nurses win the wage increases they are seeking, they would close the $2 to $3 gap in hourly wages that nurses elsewhere make and then some, setting a target for nurses elsewhere to shoot for.

More generally, this strike is an important way to address the nationwide crisis of understaffing, insufferably long hours and low pay for nurses. "Nursing salaries are going to have to move up, or this country is not going to have enough nurses," said Algatt.

In past years, nurses received nothing when OHSU wasn't doing well. Now it's time for OHSU to pay up.

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