After a strike and lockout, Providence nurses ready to return to the bargaining table

In a historic show of solidarity, more than 3,000 nurses from the Providence Health system at St. Vincent, Hood River, Newberg, Willamette Falls, Milwaukie and Medford hospitals walked out on June 18 to conduct a three-day strike. The nurses, who are represented by the Oregon Nurses Association, had intended to return to work June 21, but Providence announced they could return to their regular shifts on June 23. The nurses continued their picket in response to Providence’s unlawful lockout and are ready to return to the negotiating table in good faith.

After a strike and a lockout, Providence nurses are ready to return to the bargaining table
After a strike and a lockout, Providence nurses are ready to return to the bargaining table

The nurses have been entangled in negotiations for nine months. Even though they had more than 60 bargaining sessions and spent hundreds of hours addressing issues like unfair labor practices, disputes over healthcare benefits and staffing, no agreement has been reached. Their fight is driven by a deep-seated concern for patient care and safety. During negotiations, the nurses proposed raising staffing standards, emphasizing that adequate staffing is fundamental to delivering high-quality care. The nurses say that Providence has rejected their commonsense proposals to improve patient care and safety, noting that the health system administrators have refused to commit to safe staffing and other crucial patient safety issues in their contracts.

Caroline Allison has worked in the medical-surgical unit at Providence Medford for four years. She is also a member of the ONA Providence Medford bargaining team. Allison speaks passionately about the escalating challenges: “When I first started, having a 1-to-4 ratio—one nurse for every four patients was pretty normal. Now, it’s standard to have five patients during the day shift. It’s hard.  It is getting harder to deliver the quality care my patients deserve, and it’s harder for me to take care of myself too. I’m worn out a lot easier. Moral injury is a very real thing, and I’m feeling it on a daily basis,” says Allison, adding that the hospital loses good nurses “because they’re like, I can’t do this. This is too much.”

Virginia Smith, a medical-surgical unit nurse with 15 years of experience at Providence Willamette Falls, is the ONA Providence Willamette Falls bargaining unit chair and a member of the ONA board of directors.

After a strike and a lockout, Providence nurses are ready to return to the bargaining table

“This is the fifth contract that I negotiated with Providence Willamette Falls. I’ve been at it for 15 years with them,” says Smith. She witnessed firsthand the transformation of her workplace from an independent hospital to part of the vast Providence network. “After the 2016 merger with St. Joseph’s Health, the relationship between nurses and administration changed. We’ve seen a continuous degradation of our benefits, work protections and wages. Providence has become more focused on profits than on supporting its employees.”

Smith’s words paint a stark picture of a healthcare giant losing touch with its values: “Providence has long relied on its reputation as a values-driven organization. But the reality is, we, the nurses, uphold those values. We create a good reputation through our hard work and dedication to patient care. Yet, when we raise concerns about our working conditions, the administration remains indifferent, prioritizing business over collaboration.”

Allison recounted a pivotal moment in their struggle. “We were in Wilsonville, Ore., coordinating with five other bargaining teams. It was eye-opening to hear that the same dismissive responses we received were being echoed across all hospitals. We realized we’re not negotiating with individual hospitals but with a $28 billion corporation. Standing together, we sent a clear message: no more.”

The strike isn’t just about numbers and policies; it is about real lives impacted by the decisions of distant executives. Allison shares the disheartening experience of nursing students and new graduates: “We have students who love their practicum here but refuse to apply for jobs because of the conditions. New grads find better pay elsewhere, and experienced nurses feel undervalued. It’s tough to retain staff when they’re constantly being lured away by better opportunities.”

As the nurses took to the streets during the strike, they were met with an overwhelming wave of support from friends, family, community allies and fellow union members who turned out in droves at each of the six locations. The atmosphere was electric with solidarity and determination.

The strike marked a turning point. For the first time, the nurses were united across different hospitals, collectively challenging the monolithic health system. “This is a truly historic moment for us within the Providence system,” Smith says. “We’ve always had separate contracts, but now we stand together, demanding change.”

[Adrienne Coles]