With time running out to avert a strike, nurses and administrators at Oregon Health & Science University are preparing for battle--limbering up like wrestlers spoiling for a smackdown.

Last week, 83 percent of the nurses voted to strike Dec. 17 unless the two sides can reach some agreement.

Frustrated by heavy workloads and soaring health-care premiums, the nurses are demanding a 28-percent pay increase over two years, plus a 67-percent hike in benefits. The university has offered an 11-percent pay increase and a 7-percent benefit hike.

Currently, a starting OHSU nurse earns $17.72 an hour plus $415 a month in benefits. At St. Vincent, by comparison, starting nurses make $19.09 an hour.

"Management says this is a prestigious institution," says negotiator Kathleen Sheridan of the Oregon Nurses Association. "But you can't pay your bills with prestige."

If a strike does occur, the union has made elaborate preparations. It has set up a hotline, hired a PR firm, held job fairs and sponsored classes on how to be a good picketer.

Administrators responded with a rival hotline and a contract with a national strikebreaking firm, which is ready to fly in nurses from out-of-state. "We should be operating at our regular levels," says OHSU spokesman Jim Newman.

If there is a strike, nonunion nurses on The Hill could play a key role. The ONA represents roughly 1,500 nurses at OHSU. But 450 of those are "fair share" employees, who pay union dues but choose not to belong to the ONA. In addition, there are 125 nurses in non-clinical roles (such as research) and another 100 working as managers.

In theory, that means as many as 675 nurses may be willing to join the out-of-state strikebreakers on the job.

ONA officials, however, say few nurses will cross a picket line. In addition, some of the nurse-managers, after years of shuffling papers, may not be prepared to care for patients.

As WW goes to press, no further negotiating sessions have been scheduled.