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OHSU research workers file for union, citing low pay

Latest step for research workers at Oregon Health & Science University follows years of organizing; the number of union contracts at the institution could soon grow from six to nine
Oregon Health & Science University Marquam Hill campus in Portland. | OHSU
May 2, 2024

After more than two years of organizing, research workers at Oregon Health & Science University have petitioned the state to let them join a union — officially joining the growing number of workers organizing there.

On April 26, organizers affiliated with the Oregon chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees provided the state Employment Relations Board with cards supporting a union signed by a “strong majority” of the more than 2,000 biomedical research workers employed by OHSU. 

 The workers include scientists, clerical workers and creators of software and analytical tools. They are scattered among 120 departments in addition to countless independent labs, and are primarily located in Portland. They assist with and conduct research on topics such as cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, seizure disorders, coronaviruses and mental health disorders.

Citing low pay and excessive hours, a group of them began discussing a union in 2021, connected with AFSCME and began organizing. A year ago the university's effort to give the workers raises gave new fodder to the union because no additional funds were provided, meaning jobs were cut. The pro-union group calls itself Research Workers United. 

The union declined to say how many workers signed the authorization cards turned in to form a union. The card-check process, as it’s called, bypasses a formal ballot. OHSU had declined to recognize the union without a count of some kind.

"OHSU recognizes and respects our employees’ right to unionize, and that extends to our research workers," said Sara Hottman, a spokesperson for OHSU, in a statement to The Lund Report. "We highly value their contributions to our world-class research mission."

Hottman said OHSU is committed to ensuring safe, healthy and supportive working conditions for all its employees.

OHSU employs some 20,000 people, most of them in Portland. The institution has six contracts with unions, including two with AFSCME Local 328 as well as the OHSU Police Officers Association, the OHSU House Officers Union, the Oregon Nurses Association and Graduate Workers United). 

The university also currently is in negotiations for a first contract with OHSU PostDoc Workers United. And in addition to the research workers, advanced practice providers have filed for a union.

Citing recent losses, OHSU leadership has announced a restructuring to account for increased costs.

Tom Henderson can be reached at [email protected].