The Front Line: Ode in Solidarity with ONA
Jazz Big Band and Vocalist

Written for Portland Jazz Composers' Ensemble for a show called "The Union Makes Us Strong: Amplifying Workers' Voices with New Jazz."

The Front Line” was written about and in consultation with ONA (Oregon Nurse’s Association). Through conversations with union representatives and nurses, I learned of ONA’s history as well as recent and past struggles and victories. One theme that stood out to me was the corporatization of healthcare in the past few decades. Most hospitals used to operate as nonprofits run by Catholic nuns who had guiding principles that valued human lives and human dignity. Over the past few decades, and especially post 2010, hospitals rapidly corporatized. Although operating under the umbrella of nonprofit status, the new model has been to make as much money as possible; which has translated to understaffing … resulting in nurses burning out, leaving the profession, and suffering grave moral injuries when standards of patient care cannot be met. These issues were profoundly exacerbated during the pandemic. The text of my piece explores these issues, as well as the history of ONA and the summer 2023 strike when Providence Portland and Providence Seaside nurses came together in solidarity, winning pay raises, increased paid leave, and a commitment by Providence to comply with Oregon’s Hospital Nurse Staffing Law. As my contacts at ONA have pointed out, there is still lots of work to do, including much-needed supports for Home Health and Hospice nurses. Special thanks to Kevin Mealy (Communications Manager at ONA), Mary Romanaggi (nurse at Providence Seaside), and Richard Botterill (nurse at Providence Portland) for speaking with me about their experiences.


Eighteen ninety-nine
And we were by your bedsides
Pillars of Vitality

Vital to Society
Just women doing women’s work
Reliable, but quietly

Our profession barely recognized
But in 1904 we took the floor
With promises to organize.

In 1936, the eight hour workday became the standard for Oregon Nurses.
In 1957, we officially adopted the name “Oregon Nurses Association,” or ONA for short.
1961, we unionized with the passage of Oregon House Bill 1360.
In 1979, Nurses were granted the authority to prescribe medications.
In 1995, ONA established a monthly, free immunization clinic.

Nurses are assaulted on the job more often than bodyguards or cops.
In 2007, ONA helped pass house bill 2022, aimed at reducing violence against health care workers.

In 2014, ONA voted to affiliate with the American Federation of Teachers.
In 2001, and 2015, the Hospital Nurse Staffing Law was created and strengthened, to protect workers and patients.

In the past few decades, the overwhelming corporatization of healthcare has created insidious challenges for workers.

Sister Mary, Sister Betsy
Sister Jessie, Sister Florence
Their capable hands at the helm
Of the beast
Of the hospital’s
Neverending rhythm

Late Twentieth Century
Our sisters’ matriarchy
Fell to the whims
Of the greed
Of the forces of profit
Putting money over people’s basic needs
Then a global pandemic
Threw kindling on the bonfire
Of fatigue.

Blinking lights they flash
Before my panicked waking eyes
I’m sleep deprived
Another cup of coffee
Hurry down the hallway, baby

No time to eat
No time to sleep
Exhausted by design of
Distant calculations
Dividends divorced from empathy

Studies show
That the mortality rate of patients drops
Fourteen percent
For each one-patient reduction
In a nurse’s workload.

Yet hospital administrators
Have consistently failed
To retain adequate staff

The inevitable result:
Caregiver burnout
Moral Injury
Devastation of the psyche and soul

Oh, Oh,
Apathy, Injury
I can’t feel the warmth
But I try
I try.
Every hour is a battle
But I stay up on my feet
And I fight.

Summer of 2023
Providence Portland and Seaside Nurses
Went on Strike.

Management made threats
Union members called their bluff.

The morning of the strike arrived
Nurses were kicked out of the hospital early
A show of force from management.

500 nurses packed the street
Some dressed as nuns to honor the Sisters
Who ran the show before big money swept in

In a stunning expression of solidarity
The truck drivers’ union stopped deliveries
The atmosphere was celebratory
A cosmic street party

In Unity, Victory.