Legacy Fights Unionization Thrust At Unity Center

Unity nurses deliver a petition to Legacy staff in May. Oregon Nurses Association.jpg

Less than a month after registered nurses at the Unity Behavioral Health Center in Portland voted overwhelmingly to be represented by the Oregon Nurses Association labor union, the center’s administrators are trying to overturn the vote -- just as they said they would.

The vote was endorsed by the National Labor Relations Board regional office in Seattle. So Legacy is taking its opposition to the head office in Washington D.C. The board is expected to decide in the next several weeks if it will take up the case.

The board has five seats, but only four are currently occupied: three by appointees of President Donald Trump, and one by an appointee of former President Barack Obama.

Of the 202 nurses eligible to vote at the Northeast Portland center, 128 voted for the union and 25 voted against. Legacy has argued the center is not a standalone facility but is part of a three-hospital complex, and that federal labor law and precedent dictates that a union representing registered nurses can be brought in only with a vote of the three facilities’ roughly 1,600 registered nurses.

The nurses union and the board’s regional office disagree. The regional director said the bulk of evidence showed Unity and its nursing staff are effectively separate from the two other facilities: Legacy Emanuel Medical Center and Randall Children’s Hospital, which are both in North Portland. 

In its request for review, Legacy repeated and elaborated on arguments it made to the regional office. 

“Legacy Health has chosen to appeal the recent NLRB decision because we still believe our position is correct and are exercising our right for further review. We feel strongly that our operations meet the intent, as well as the detailed legal requirements, to be treated as one entity under the healthcare rules,” said Legacy spokesman Brian Terrett.

The nurses association panned Legacy’s move, saying it is “a tactic to delay bargaining and confuse the public, patients and nurses.”

“Legacy’s request to have the NLRB review the decision from the regional director is another tactic to suppress the voice of nurses at Unity Center,” said Myrna Jensen, an association spokeswoman. “Legacy has repeatedly said they value the opinions, expertise and input of nurses from Unity. If that were true they would respect the results of the vote.”

The battle between Legacy and the pro-union nurses is significant in part because no other Legacy-run facility in the Portland area is represented by the nurses association. Counting Legacy Emanuel and Randall Children’s Hospital, Legacy has seven hospitals in the greater Portland metro area.

Legacy manages and is the lead owner of Unity, with a 40 percent share in the facility. Adventist Health, Kaiser Permanente and Oregon Health & Science University each hold 20 percent. The four providers opened Unity in 2017 as a regional behavioral health care facility replacing or supplementing each provider’s behavioral health facilities. 

The board’s regional director said nurses at Unity carry out specialized mental health work that is different from the work of nurses at Legacy Emanuel and Randall Children’s Hospital. Plus, Unity is a mile away from Legacy Emanuel and Randall and it has substantial management autonomy, the regional director said.

But in its filing with the board, Legacy argued that  Unity is “the mental health department of Legacy Emanuel.”

“Unity is located in a separate building because Emanuel lacked the physical capacity to house the (Legacy) expanded psychiatric operation when it opened in January 2017,” Legacy said.

Federal and state regulators regard the three Legacy facilities – Legacy Emanuel, Randall Children’s and Unity – as a single unit, Legacy said. In addition, all the nurses at the three facilities are employees of Legacy Emanuel Hospital and Health Center, Legacy said.

Correction: Registered nurses at Legacy Silverton Medical Center are represented by the Oregon Nurses Association. It is the only Legacy hospital where nurses are represented by the union. This article originally stated that no nurses in the Legacy system were represented by the association.

Christian Wihtol can be reached at [email protected]

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