Striking nurses press for details

OHSU contract awaits approval, but 'it's not over yet,' picketer warns

Representatives of more than 1,000 striking nurses say union members on Sunday will end the seven-week strike against Oregon Health & Science University Hospital, despite strong misgivings about the length of the proposed contract.

'Today we're fielding a lot of questions from nurses who want more details, and there are a lot of mixed feelings about the contract,' said Diana Wise, a surgical critical care nurse who was staffing phones at the nurses' strike headquarters Thursday morning.

The nurses' concern is that the union agreed to a three-year pact instead of the two-year deal they have sought throughout the sometimes acrimonious negotiations.

OHSU spokesman Jim Newman said the university can 'comfortably sustain' salary increases that span the three years.

Aaron Crane, OHSU's chief financial officer, said: 'There is not a pot of money to spend endlessly. This is a compromise we felt would work.'

For the nurses, the three-year agreement was a good compromise, according to Wise.

'We were pushing hard for a two-year contract, but what the nurses will learn is that we are not locked into three years,' she said. 'We will have the option to open it up, and we've proved we're not afraid to do that.'

Still, Wise said she expects approval of the proposed contract during the daylong vote Sunday.

'A majority just wants to go back to work and get back into their comfort zone,' said Wise, who added that the union is strongly recommending a 'yes' vote.

The tentative agreement Ñ reached at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday after 33 grueling hours of negotiations Monday and Tuesday Ñ proposes a contract that would give OHSU nurses a 20.5 percent wage increase over three years.

The contract breaks down to 7 percent for each of the first two years and 6.5 percent in the third year. It is retroactive to Oct. 1.

The nurses went on strike Dec. 17.

Nurses wanted a two-year contract because 'three years doesn't allow us to re-examine issues as they occur,' said Mark Wilson, a recovery-room nurse who was one of three picketers standing in a cold rain outside the hospital late Wednesday.

'A two-year contract would make it easier for us to keep current with the market,' said Wilson, who has picketed at the hospital for all but 12 of the strike's 50-plus days.

He said he was still picketing because 'nothing's been ratified yet. We want people to see it's not over yet.'

Union representatives accepted the three-year contract because the third-year 6.5 percent wage hike can be changed depending on the marketplace, said Teresa Stone, a nurse in OHSU's neonatal intensive care unit and president of the Oregon Nurses Association, which represents the nurses.

The third-year hike would be compared with the average of nurses' wages paid at Providence Portland Medical Center and Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, Willamette Falls Hospital in Oregon City, Sacred Heart Hospital in Eugene and Tuality Hospital in Hillsboro.

If OHSU nurses make less than the average wage paid by the five hospitals, the 6.5 percent figure would be raised to match the market rate, Stone said. If it is higher than the average wage, the 6.5 percent figure would still be paid.

'I understand some nurses' reluctance about it, but the third year is more acceptable because it will keep up with (wages at) local hospitals,' Stone said.

Wise said some nurses also are unhappy that the union agreed to the 7 percent wage hike for the first two years of the contract. That represents a 1.5 percent increase from the 5.5 percent the university initially offered.

The nurses were asking for a 19 percent wage hike Ñ or a 9.5 increase each year Ñ over a two-year period.

'We did the best we could, but it was clear we were not going to get a two-year deal,' said Ken Fitzsimon, labor relations administrator for the Oregon Nurses Association.

'Our goal was to get a three-year deal that protected the nurses, and that's what we did,' he said.

Another significant contract provision would give all nurses an extra $30 a month for health insurance in the contract's first year and a $30-per-month increase for full-time nurses and a $20-per-month increase for part-time nurses in the second and third years.

The university also agreed to establish a cost-effective health insurance plan for the nurses, replacing or modifying the five health insurance choices nurses currently have.

OHSU will have a plan for employees to review by June 30, 2003, said Aaron Crane, OHSU chief financial officer.

Another provision of the contract Ñ requiring that the hospital be accredited by the American Nurses Association Ñ is designed to improve relationships between nurses and management.

'This means OHSU would have to have nurses involved in all phases of patient care and in making all the decisions,' said the union's Wise. 'It will take about six years, but it's for future nurses who work here. It will be a great change.'

'When and if accreditation occurs, this would be a message to nurses nationwide that OHSU is a good place to work,' said the university's Newman.

He said about 40 hospitals nationwide have such accreditation.

When nurses become more familiar with these and other 'nonfinancial stuff' in the proposed contract, Wise said, they likely will be more comfortable with it.

'We still have a lot of people who won't vote for the contract, and they are some who worked hard on it,' she said. 'But it's the best we will get and it is a good building block for stuff we expect to get in the future.'

OHSU's Newman and the union's Fitzsimon confirmed this week that Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber led a meeting last Friday with OHSU President Peter Kohler and Fitzsimon to urge both sides to settle the strike.

'The governor didn't make specific suggestions, but he reminded us of the importance of having an agreement sooner rather than later,' Fitzsimon said. That meeting prompted a couple of private meetings between Kohler and Fitzsimon.

'Some of the progress we made on noneconomic issues were directly related to (Kohler's) involvement,' Fitzsimon said.

If nurses go back to work next week, 'a lot of mending will have to take place,' especially between nurses who crossed the picket lines and those who stayed out on strike, said Stone, the union president.

She estimated that more than 100 nurses have left OHSU for other jobs. But she and OHSU spokesman Newman said the new contract could make OHSU more attractive to job seekers.