Downtown march backs nurses at Columbia Memorial

Hundreds of union members and other supporters, including U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, marched through downtown Astoria on Saturday during a rally for Columbia Memorial Hospital nurses, who are in a protracted labor dispute with hospital administrators.

The Oregon Nurses Association, a union representing more than 120 nurses at the Astoria hospital, and the hospital’s administration have been negotiating to replace a three-year contract that expired in May. The two sides brought in a mediator but have not been able to reach an agreement.

Merkley, whose wife is a nurse, arrived Saturday on one of several school buses carrying union supporters from an AFL-CIO convention in Seaside. The Oregon Democrat spoke with supporters and joined the march, which crisscrossed downtown east on Marine Drive and west on Commercial Street.

“Nurses are the angels in our society,” Merkley said, encouraging outreach on their behalf.

Nurses claim the hospital is stockpiling profits for a new campus amid dangerously low staffing levels, inconsistent scheduling and low pay. They point to the hospital’s nearly 12% operating margin, the third-highest among small, rural hospitals in the state, and CEO Erik Thorsen’s lucrative salary and benefits.

The Oregon Health Authority has one complaint against the hospital from 2016 for multiple alleged violations of a new state staffing law. Nurses want the law included in their new contract to facilitate faster union grievances against violations. The administration claims such a move would inappropriately make the union the guardians of the law.

Kelsey Betts, a nurse in the family birthing center and the chairwoman of the union’s executive committee, said nurses are focused on continuing to get the word out about their struggle.

In 2002, nurses picketed and threatened to strike before reaching an agreement with the hospital. Hundreds of hospital employees covered by the Service Employees International Union Local 49 have also picketed and threatened to strike in the past. They are expected to enter negotiations with the hospital in 2021.