PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Heading into Labor Day weekend, the greater Portland area’s labor force is taking action — including the nurses of Oregon Health and Science University.

On Friday, OHSU nurses announced they’ll open a strike authorization vote that could lead to thousands to hit the picket line. 

Elisa Youngman, a cardiac ICU nurse at OHSU and president of the University Registered Nurses of the Oregon Nurses Association, says they’ve been in negotiations with hospital management for nearly a year, fighting for improved safety and staffing. 

“You have an institution that wants to honor you and treat you like you’re the best thing in the world and then turn around and tell you but you’re not worth it in wages and you’re not worth it in retention and you’re not worth it in safety and you’re not worth it in staffing,” Youngman said. “That’s devastating.”

The news of a potential strike comes just weeks after OHSU and Legacy Health announced they intend to merge into one organization of more than 32,000 employees. Youngman said it’s cause for concern.

“We are very concerned about this potential merger, and we want to make sure that we are setting up all of the nurses who are going to be working at this future entity to be able to take really good care of our patients,” she said. “We’re going to be supporting an even larger portion of the community and it is absolutely necessary as a state hospital to ensure that this hospital is a place where our community can come and get safe care.”

Much of 2023 placed a spotlight on Oregon’s nursing industry and issues within. Earlier this summer, hundreds of Providence workers at three facilities went on strike for five days. In June, nurses at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend reached a contract and narrowly avoided a strike. Legacy Health has also been under fire, from the initial closure of its Mount Hood Family Birth Center, to workers calling on safety concerns following a shooting at the Good Samaritan hospital where a security guard was killed.

“Our workplace needs to be safe for our patients and it needs to be safe for us,” Youngman said, adding that she’s seen the impact of these issues reaching the next generation of nurses entering the workforce. “I think nurses are afraid to come into the field, people are worried because they see that we’ve been run ragged.”

While OHSU nurses continue to bargain for safe staffing levels, retention incentives, and even workplace safety measures like self defense training, Youngman says they also stand with their fellow Oregon hospitals and beyond.

“We also have solidarity with UPS and we also have solidarity with Powell’s Bookstore and we also have solidarity with the REI workers who were not able to unionize,” Youngman said. “So this is a greater movement than just nurses.”

The vote will start Sept. 6 and run through the Sept. 17. If passed, leaders will be able to call for a strike.