Members of Unitys unionizing nurses
Members of Unity's unionizing nurses Unity Center for Behavioral Health

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has overturned Legacy Health's attempt to halt unionization efforts among nurses at the Unity Center for Behavioral Health.

In doing so, the board granted Unity nurses a chance to vote on whether or not to join the Oregon Nurses Association—the state's largest nurse union—in a June 19 election.

Unity nurses announced their intent to form a union in early May, arguing for more input on the direction and practices of the new, 24-hour psychiatric emergency center. After witnessing Unity's rocky start—built on insufficient staff training and safety precautions that left two patients dead—the psychiatric experts are wanting a seat at the table.

Instead of voluntarily accepting and approving the union, Legacy Health (which oversees Unity) challenged the request before the NLRB. Because Legacy Health runs other hospitals in Portland that employ other nurses, the company argued, the union would break labor laws by only allowing membership to Unity nurses. Legacy Health also contended that many nurses hop between other hospitals (like Legacy Emmanuel Hospital and Randall Children's Hospital), which would complicate labor policies.

This didn't convince Ronald Hooks, the regional NLRB director who ruled on this case. Based on collected evidence, Hooks found that Unity nurses hardly ever work outside of their facility. He also noted that their workplace atmosphere and demands are fundamentally different from nurses working at Legacy Health's other hospitals.

Unlike a more traditional hospital, Unity hosts incoming patients in a large open room, where people sit near each other in recliner chairs.

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Nurses at Unity also receive special training in verbal deescalation and certain physical techniques to respond to patients who may be at risk of harming themselves or others. Instead of relying on security guards like within Legacy's other hospitals, Unity nurses lead all on-site responses to combative patients who may be experiencing a mental health crisis.

In Hooks' ruling issued today, he writes that Legacy Health's arguments "[do] little to rebut the presumption that the nurses at Unity, and those nurses alone, make up an appropriate bargaining unit." In short, he grants Unity nurses the general ability to unionize. But that doesn't mean their union is guaranteed.

On June 19, hundreds of Unity Health nurses will vote on whether or not they'll join the Oregon Nurses Association. Legacy Health will have to accept the election's outcome, whatever it may be. Stay tuned.