Events took a strange turn this summer when a union representing about 7,000 workers at Oregon Health and Science University tried to renew its contract.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 328 said in August that top OHSU administrators created fake social media accounts to "troll" the union. Administrators used pseudonyms to disseminate incorrect information about union positions.
The university apologized, and one of the accused trolls, the vice president of human resources, Dan Forbes, resigned.
But that wasn't the only time that the university has interfered with its workers' efforts to make gains for themselves, union leaders say. This year, Local 328 has complained to the state's Employment Relations Board twice, first in August over the social media incident, and again in October, accusing the university of dissuading workers from supporting the union.
During the past year, two other groups of workers — graduate students and residents — have formed unions in a quest to improve their working conditions. The graduate students also complained to the state.
Matt Hilton, a call center operator at OHSU who is president of AFSCME Local 328, contends the stealth social media campaign was just one incident in a series showing what he says is the university's "anti-union bias."
"OHSU is committed to complying with all labor relations laws in Oregon," said Erik Robinson, a spokesman for the university, in a written response to questions from the Oregon Capital Bureau. "We cannot comment further on these particular cases while these matters are pending before the Employment Relations Board."
The university has not responded to the labor complaints in writing, Robinson said, "as we intend to respond to all these issues through the process defined by the Employment Relations Board."
Local 328 represents pretty much any worker who isn't a doctor, nurse, graduate student or trainee: from food service workers, to schedulers, shuttle drivers, people who take blood, EKG technicians, and so on.
Mediation between the parties over the social media incident fizzled, Hilton said. Local 328 plans to file another complaint in early November with the board. It also wants an independent investigation into the university's labor practices.
The union alleges in one of its complaints to the state that managers told employees wearing union T-shirts, stickers and buttons to remove them in what the union asserts is a violation of state labor laws.
Robinson said the university respects employees who want to exercise their labor rights, such as wearing union T-shirts and buttons, but they have to comply with "workplace OHSU appearance policies, such as any uniform requirements."
The union argues that the uniform restriction on logos is applied unevenly: nobody raises an eyebrow at Nike swooshes or University of Oregon gear.
In addition, the union contends, employees have been unlawfully targeted and discriminated against for participating in union activity, citing one instance where a union steward was called into an investigatory meeting with supervisors and asked about why she needed to review her union's contract. The same employee was told to speak to her supervisor about contract-related issues instead of the union.
"OHSU's conduct was repetitive, flagrant and egregious," the union stated in its Employment Relations Board complaint.
Hilton said new organizing among graduate researchers and residents raises questions about OHSU's attitude toward workers. "While this may not be a comfortable conversation with OHSU," Hilton said. "Outside of your existing represented employee issues, if your working conditions are creating other employees to want to unionize, I think that really begs the question (of), where is this level of disregard for organized workers coming from?"
Researchers not employees
In August, nearly a year after voting to form a union, graduate researchers also complained to the state's Employment Relations Board, accusing OHSU managers of refusing to bargain in good faith with the workers and of unlawfully interfering with workers' attempts to organize. The complaint, which was amended in late October, is pending.
The trouble began almost as soon as researchers voted to form a union, according to the students. The university objected, saying that they were students and not employees, said Sam Papadakis, a fifth-year doctoral student in neuroscience who is involved in the union drive.
The distinction seems technical, but not being officially an employee has significant drawbacks, Papadakis said. The university's approximately 300 graduate students are paid like independent contractors, which means it's harder to prove their income when seeking to rent an apartment, for instance, or to set up an independent retirement account, Papadakis said.
But OHSU withdrew its objections to the petition, according to state records. The Employment Relations Board certified the graduate researchers' bargaining unit Jan. 2.
The graduate researchers are pushing for a higher stipend — the maximum is $32,000 per year for students in the school of medicine, and is lower for doctoral students in nursing. They say that's too low to live in Portland. And they also want the contract to ensure that managers can't ask students to work more than 40 hours a week.
Papadakis said that the graduate researchers realize that attaining high-level science degrees can be challenging for people who can't afford low earnings during graduate school, or perhaps due to a disability cannot work more than 40 hours a week.
"We've unionized for a lot of different reasons," said Papadakis, "Which all seem to center around this one core theme, which is that we want OHSU and the graduate programs to be a place where anyone can come here and pursue a PhD and join the ranks of science."
But the graduate researchers say the negotiations have been "contentious and drawn out," according to their complaint to the state. They allege that university officials canceled about half the bargaining sessions, changed meeting locations at the last minute, and that they don't respond "in a timely manner" to the graduate researchers' proposals. And they say the university has disseminated inaccurate information about the union.
The graduate researchers also contend they were dissuaded from attending an October rally in support of a union, stating that an official at the School of Medicine told students that attending an October rally for unionization would face an unexcused absence from their labs or classes.
Early career positions
Not long after the graduate researchers held their rally Oct. 9, a third group of workers announced their intent to unionize: medical residents.
On Oct. 15, a majority of the university's roughly 800 house officers — physicians who have a medical degree but are still in supervised training — voted to form a union through AFSCME. House officers can be residents, interns or fellows.
Oregon AFSCME says that the university is one of few public institutions on the West Coast where such workers haven't formed a union.
"As physicians on the front line, we need a real voice to make decisions that affect our patients, our ongoing medical education, and our lives," said Heather Buxton, a psychiatry resident, in a statement. "We believe a union can facilitate this."
After the house officers announced they were forming a union, the university said in a news release that it "recognizes and respects our employees' right to unionize," and that it has "had a long and productive relationship with organized labor."
"We have had several opportunities to collaborate with our House Officers Association on key issues and look forward to continuing that dialogue in collaboration with organized labor, with approval from the Employee Relations Board," Renee Edwards, OHSU Healthcare chief medical officer, said in a statement.
The medical residents and the graduate researchers each approached AFSCME about forming a union, said David Kreisman, a spokesman for Oregon AFSCME. "A lot of these positions … are early career positions," he said. "But just because you're early in your career and you're gaining that experience doesn't mean that you don't have rights. And it also doesn't mean that you don't deserve respect in the workplace, and a voice on the job, and a voice in the decisions that affect you, and in this case, patient care."
OHSU receives a small slice of its budget from the state. It gets most of its revenue from gifts, grants, contracts and patients paying for health care.
The university, which has about 16,000 employees, has an annual operating budget of about $3 billion. The university conducts research, provides medical care, and trains doctors, nurses, dentists and other health care workers.
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