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OHSU research workers push for a union

Research workers say Oregon Health & Science University should have funded recent raises to prevent layoffs
The OHSU Center for Health & Healing Building 2 in the South Waterfront neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, on July 25, 2020. | SHUTTERSTOCK
May 10, 2023

Julien Carson’s contributions to research at Oregon Health & Science University have been recognized by name in studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Their paychecks, though, were not that far above the cutoff for food stamps, Carson said.

Carson is one of many research workers at OHSU who say it’s time for their ranks —1,600 in number — to organize. Calling themselves Research Workers United, they cite lagging pay, uncertain working conditions and a lack of voice for workers.

Working with Council 75 of the American Federation of State, Council and Municipal Employees, the group is now protesting layoffs that they say could have been prevented had there been a union.

The push sheds light on a group at OHSU that represents a significant chunk of its roughly 20,0000 employees. It also shows how, as the university continues to report surprising profits, workers at the sprawling university medical center and health system are demanding to be considered in how those funds are spent.

Last Tuesday, the workers group turned in a petition bearing more than 800 signatures to OHSU President Danny Jacobs’ office. The petition urged the university to cover the cost of recent pay increases rather than force some research workers to be laid off. 

In response to the organizers’ efforts a university spokesperson issued a statement  that did not directly address the petition’s request.

“We know our world-class researchers have choices of where they dedicate time and expertise, and we want to invest in the people driving discovery and innovation here at OHSU. Paying fairly and competitively with what other institutions are paying is a significant part of that investment. As we continue cultivating a people-first culture, we will work to make sure every person at OHSU feels valued.”

For union officials, however, the timing of the raise — coming even as research workers organize — is suspect.

"Knowing researchers are in the midst of organizing to address among other issues, unilateral policy changes like this, it's unfortunate that OHSU would implement a well-deserved increase without discussing the consequences with the researchers affected,” said Stacy Chamberlain, Executive Director of Oregon AFSCME Council 75, in a statement. “This is an attempt to undermine the voices of research workers who are organizing to have a voice in the decisions that affect them, their programs and their research."

An army of researchers

Carson, whose youthful interest in marine biology turned into an interest in cell and molecular science, is one of an army of intelligent, hard-working research workers employed by OHSU to engage in cutting-edge research, primarily into health and health care. Cancer, gene therapy, cardiology, bone marrow, diabetes, pediatrics, urology, infection disease, you name it: If it involves health, odds are OHSU is researching it.

The workers are part of a larger transformation that’s occurred in the 28 years since the Oregon Legislature converted the university from a state agency to a semi-independent arm of government known as a public corporation.

Having spent a year working at OHSU’s Oregon Primate Research Center in Beaverton, Carson now works with a researcher who’s looking at the immunological effects of hormone replacement therapy, such as in trans individuals like Carson.

“That means the world to me,” Carson said, adding that the lab where they work is “really focused on making sure that problems that are real-world —and that people don't have answers to —are getting answered.”

In Carson’s previous assignment, however, work weeks could hit 50 hours a week, including weekends and sudden evening call-outs to euthanize sick or suffering animals.

“We were working overtime, but because we're salaried, we don't get overtime pay. And we're working super hard,” they added. “And for a while they weren't letting faculty members staff appropriately for the amount of work they had.”

The research workers are scattered among 120 departments in addition to countless independent labs. They are primarily located in Portland, though with some scattered around the state. Each lab is headed by principal researcher or investigator who runs it largely independently, almost like a business. Outside funders power the research with grants, and each lab’s budget reflects that. The labs hire research workers in a variety of classifications set by the university’s human relations department, with salary scales based on responsibility and experience.

In March, after years of lagging pay, the university mandated raises ranging between 3.5%  and 15.4% for all research workers, saying a crisis in hiring due to low salaries had triggered it.

But the raises included no money from the university to fund them. So all the costs had to come out of research budgets that had already been approved. That meant layoffs for some of the research workers who otherwise would have received raises, and, critics said, threatened the scope of some of the research planned.

“We’re starting to understand how important this union is,” Carson said. “Because people are losing their jobs.”

According to a university presentation at an April 10 town hall to address criticisms of the raises, the move was made in response to a “loud roar of dissatisfaction” over research workers’ pay.

There, the university’s Chief Research Officer, Peter Barr-Gillespie admitted the university knew layoffs were likely but didn’t’ know how many.

“Our starting salaries have not kept pace with the market,” he said, saying an inability to hired represented “an existential threat” to some OHSU labs.

We felt it was crucial to make moves immediately,” he said, but admitted the university messed up by failing to inform principal researchers of the raises in advance

“I take the blame on that,” he added. “But that doesn’t mean there would have been an opportunity to change the outcome.”

Carson and other union organizers, however, say that a union would have required the university negotiate the salary change and make sure it was done in a way to prevent layoffs. They say that, even now, the university could step in to avert layoffs or provide “bridge funding” to research workers until a new job comes along — as other universities do.

In the April discussion with researchers, Barr-Gillespie dismissed the idea of the university covering the raises, saying “the financial position of the institution hasn’t been good enough to buffer the changes … It would have been nice to have a bowl of money to help people through some periods of time, but we don’t have those resources right now.”

But the organizers disagree, pointing to OHSU’s continued profits this year. As The Lund Report reported last month, the institution is reporting 2.4 percent profits on its $4 billion budget despite having forecast only a break-even year. OHSU and its foundation are worth $3.98 billion, up 10% in three years, the university reported in January.

The group has been organizing quietly for a year, but now is becoming more public, with a website, blog post, twitter account and public petition calling on the university to work with them to prevent further layoffs. Next up: securing support from a majority of the 1,600 workers so they can petition the state Employment Relations Board for recognition.

Lynne Swarbrick, a research worker at OHSU for 22 years, says the group started forming 18 months ago in the wake of other personnel moves that she said seemed to be executed with a disregard for fairness and communication. The poorly executed raises just make her more passionate about the need for a union.

“These are well deserved raises, overdue, and you shouldn't get a raise just to then be let go because you're paid on a grant. And OHSU isn't willing to cover the cost of these raises ... it just left a bad taste in my mouth.”

​​You can reach Nick Budnick at [email protected] or at @NickBudnick on Twitter.