It was a cold winter morning on December 17, 2001 when hundreds of OHSU nurses gathered to march from the Association of University Registered Nurses (AURN) strike headquarters on 10th & Gibbs to ‘The Hill’ to kick off what would eventually become the longest running strike in ONA history. So, what prompted over ninety percent of OHSU nurses to take to the streets just before the holidays and, more importantly, what did they gain from 56 days on the strike line?
OHSU nurses went on strike seeking respect, retention and remuneration. At the height of a nursing shortage OHSU wages were 12-19% below market area wages, health insurance rates were set to increase by 55% the following year and OHSU administration proposed the removal of contract language providing tuition discounts to employees. Nurses were constantly working short-staffed, putting in extra hours for the institution with little incentive to do so. Nurses at the premier healthcare institution for the state of Oregon wanted a stronger voice in their practice, competitive wages in order to retain and recruit staff, and a commitment from administration to give nurses and nursing practice the respect that it so richly deserved.
Over a month after the strike began, AURN President, Dominga Lopez, urged the OHSU Board of Directors to "show leadership to the community and exercise its responsibility for safe patient care and sound fiscal policy by mandating that OHSU administration make an offer that will get the nurses back to work.” She reminded Board members that the hospital had already experienced financial losses due to lower patient occupancy during the strike, increased labor costs for replacement nurses, and a diminished community perception of the positive image of OHSU. Lopez made it very clear to the Board of Directors that "in a time of a nursing shortage, when the hospital had over 200 RN vacancies before the strike and when about 100 striking nurses have already accepted other positions at competing hospitals in the Portland area for more money, better working conditions and respect, it is imperative that the OHSU Board intervene to correct the disastrous course that OHSU has undertaken.”
On February 5, 2002 the ONA and OHSU teams created a tentative agreement to address the concerns of the nurses. The AURN gained greater access to members through the ability to communicate via the employer's email and retained their right to view working conditions and speak to nurses during work hours; they retained a provision providing double-time pay for mandatory overtime, protected FTE and Resource nurses from cancellation while agency nurses continued to work, increased the hospitals contribution to health insurance, included a tuition benefit program and gave unit based nursing practice committees the right to develop, implement, monitor, evaluate and modify unit staffing plans. The offer contained the financial incentives AURN felt were necessary for the recruitment and retention of nurses by increasing pay for shifts designated as ‘critical need incentive shifts’ to $10/hour, provided at least a 20.5% increase in wages over the life of the three year contract, removed Step 1 from the wage scale and added a new top step to reward nurses with over 25 years of experience and increased all differentials to the average of five comparative hospitals in the area. It was the first three year agreement that AURN had negotiated and it was very important that the third year included an automatic escalator if the market increased at a higher rate than the wage increase negotiated for the third year.
OHSU nurses gained competitive area wages and a meaningful voice in the staffing process. In conjunction with the settlement offer, AURN officers also negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which included the formation of a committee focused on increasing nursing satisfaction and a commitment to pursue ANA Magnet Status. The MOU required OHSU Human Resources to develop employee satisfaction tools and measures and implemented a performance evaluation tool for all levels of the work force including management. Hospital administration also agreed to develop a new healthcare plan with OHSU as the preferred provider organization in an effort to provide more control over rising healthcare costs.
Returning to work was not easy for the nurses who remained on the strike line for 56 days. Many returned to find their former schedules had been altered, former charge nurses were removed from their assignment and replaced with nurses who had crossed the picket line or agency nurses. Resource nurses were not being provided hours as the hospital continued to honor contracts made with replacement agency nurses. Janis Olson, a longtime ONA member who participated in the strike, said it was four or five years before conditions really improved in the hospital and administration hired new managers and retained good staff.
Ten years later, OHSU is still pursuing Magnet Status. Since the commitment to strive for Magnet Status, OHSU nurses have participated in the ANA National Database of Nursing Quality Indicators (NDNQI) survey every year it is offered and for the first time this year received scores above the norm. Some OHSU nurses who participated in the strike are disappointed that the hospital has yet to achieve Magnet Status. Other nurses, like Janis Olson feel that "the strike changed the culture for the better because it initiated the pursuit of Magnet. If Magnet pursuit and the ability to evaluate our managers were a result of the strike then it was worth it.”