Unity Center nurses vote to unionize

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Registered nurses at the Unity Center for Behavioral Health in Portland, Ore., voted overwhelmingly on June 19 to join the Oregon Nurses Association.

ONA Legacy RNs

Unity Center is a 24-hour psychiatric emergency room and behavioral health center that is run by Legacy Health. The 200 nurses at Unity Center have been working to organize with the ONA to improve community healthcare, create a safe environment for patients and staff, gain a real voice in decision-making, and ensure fair representation for workers and compassionate treatment for patients.

Jeff Ferrier, a registered nurse who works in Unity’s patient emergency services department, says the vote was a strong statement for what the nurses want: a bigger say in patient care.

“I think unionizing will give nurses at the hospital a greater collective voice, a stronger voice to make changes at the facility” regarding patient care,” says Ferrier, who has been a nurse for seven years.

Sherrie Neff, a registered nurse who works in the inpatient unit at Unity, says unionizing gives her a sense of safety. Unity Center opened in 2017; since then, it has been the subject of multiple Oregon Health Authority investigations, which uncovered problems that jeopardized patient safety and threatened Unity’s federal healthcare certifications. Unity Center has also been fined by Oregon’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration for violating safety rules, and the facility faces separate lawsuits from a former staff member and a county mental health investigator who allege they alerted management to safety concerns but were ignored or retaliated against.

“I come from a union family, so I know that unions protect people,” says Neff, who has been a nurse for three years. She wants to know that she and her patients are safe, “and I feel safer having a union behind me. I’m excited to be on the ground floor of building a union; it’s hard work, but it’s worth it.”

With their election secured, the nurses at Unity are looking forward to working with Legacy Health at the bargaining table for a first contract.

[Adrienne Coles]