The nine-day strike by registered nurses against the Washington Hospital Center is more than the simple labor dispute the picket signs, slogans and demands of the nurses would indicate.

And the refusal of the administration of the center, the Washington metropolitan area's largest private hospital, to give away on certain issues involving scheduling, unionization and workers' rights represents far more than simple intarnsigence or financial tight fistedness by an employer.

Rather, the struggle at the hospital center is representative of the nationwide demand on the part of nurses that their traditional role in the health care system be radically altered, and the reluctance of some hospital administrations to change what they see as the long-tested and proper way of delivering health care.

The strike at the 911-bed institution comes at a difficult time for both the nurses and hospital administrators.

For their part, nurses are expressing a new sense of themselves and their work. Some nurses, particularly the younger ones, are no longer willing to view themselves, or be treated, as simply the handmaidens of physicians.

Rather, they see themselves as equal members of a health care team, providing a type of care that is different from, but nonetheless as important as, that provided by more highly trained physicians, who make three to 10 times the money nurses earn.

This new militancy by nurses is occurring at the same time hospital administrators, in the words of a Washington area administrator, feel themselves part of "a very regulated industry."

"We're accountable to everybody except ourselves," he said, explaining that he views the advent of professional unionism as "just putting another layer in to deal with. I don't know what you accomplish except adding that layer."

Perhaps no demand by the hospital center nurses is as illustrative of the problems facing the nurses and adminstrators as that dealing with fixed, rather than rotating, work schedules.

Nurses traditionally have had to rotate between day, evening and night work, much like police, firefighters and other workers in jobs where services must be provided around the clock.

To the center nurses, who have demanded that they be assigned to permanent day work on the basis of seniority, it is simply a matter of believing that they are entitled to the same kind of 9-to-5 lives enjoyed by other workers.

Les Kuykendall, a field representative of the collective bargaining branch of the American Nurses' Association, whose state chapters have negotiated contracts for about 100,000 of the nation's 1.1 million registered nurses, sees the demand for fixed shifts as one to improve the quality of nurses' lives and the quality of the care they provided.

"Nonrotating schedules is a very important item in terms of professional health care," said Kuykendall. "It assures that the nurses not be in poor physical condition" because of constantly switching back and forth between day and night work.

Kuykendall insists that hospitals can arrange for permanent day work and still staff properly at night because "there are various personal and family reasons why a nurse with experience wants to work night." There are some nurses at the hospital center voluntarily assigned to night and evening work on a permanent basis.

The issue is seen from a radically different perspective, however, by hospital administrators. "I don't think there is a hospital in the area that wouldn't take strike if they thought important issues were at stake," said an administrator at a city hospital. He added that he sees the question of scheduling as just such an issue.

"Because we're a society that's based on a 9 to 5, five-day week, it's hard to get enough people who want to work permanent nights and evenings," said another hospital administrator. "If you based the assignment on seniority, you'd have all the inexperienced people on nights and evenings, and that would be very detrimental to patient care. That's the time when you need somebody with lots of capability and good jugdments."

One Washington area hospital administrator, said he felt the center is being too rigid in its apparent bargaining stance.

"Fixed day shifts in their extreme make it almost impossible to deliver patient care in a hospital because the majority of nurses would opt for fixed day shifts," he said.

"It's unfortunate to get into a rigid position, however, because you can devise a system that allows for a certain number of fixed day shifts on a seniority basis. It's hard in a community like Washington where nurse turnover is very high, but it's probably easier in a small community."

"I think the hospital center administration took a stonewell position and really refused to sit down and talk" he said, "let alone negotiate," which the hospital center administration denies.

"That made the nurses in this day and age a little bit edgy," the man continued, "because of their changing role in relationship to the administration and the doctors. The hospital center administration has been quite traditional and conservative in its orientation. The same thing is true of the medical staff as well. But it's not so bad, they've been pretty successful in the things they do."

That administrator said his institution experiences a 35 to 55 percent annual turnover in nurses, and said that most major area hospitals experience a similar rate.

Because of the high turnover rate in the area, this is a seller's market for nurses. Directors of services providing temporary duty nurses to hospitals, nursing homes and private individuals have said in interviews that they believe there is enough work available to keep as many as 300 striking hospital center nurses busy half-time during the strike.

That administrator said his institution experiences a 35 to 55 percent annual turnover in nurses, and said that most major area hospitals experience a similar rate.

Because of the high turnover rate in the area, this is a seller's market for nurses. Directors of services providing temporary duty nurses to hospitals, nursing homes and private individuals have said in interviews that they believe there is enough work available to keep as many as 300 striking hospital center nurses busy half-time during the strike.

That situation may change soon, however, one hospital administrator noted, because hospitals traditionally have fewer patients, and less need for extra nurses, in the summer, and as the strike goes on there will be a decreasing number of part-time jobs available to sustain the strikers, who have no strike fund to speak of.

The strike by about 60 percent of the hospital center's 425 registered nurses is a unique event in this area, but not in the nation. There have been nurses' strikes in such cities as San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago. An 11-day strike in April by physicians at Washington's Group Health Association was the nation's first major strike by fully-trained physicians.

While there has been much discussion nationally about the unionization of health care professionals, most hospital administrators interviewed said they either opposed nurses joining unions simply because the administrator was philosophically opposed to anyone belonging to a union, or they expressed indifference to their nurses joining labor organizations.

While some members of the public have trouble understanding why nurses, who have traditionally been viewed as selfless caregivers, can leave their patients to take up picket signs, Ivy Nelson, dean of the school of nursing at the University of the District of Columbia, has no such problem.

"When a nurse goes out to do her shopping no one asks her whether she's a nurse or not" before deciding how much to charge her, said Nelson. "The things nurses are asking are compatible with social changes in the country. One's orientation changewith social changes. I wonder why" people have the perception that nurses shouldn't strike. "We have the same rights and privileges as everybody else. I don't see why people get so upset."

What this strike, like most others, may eventually come down to is a question of who can least afford financially to hold out. As negotiations resumed yesterday each side had to be looking at the effects of the first nine days of the walkout.

The nurses have now passed one payday without picking up checks, and their health insurance is paid only through June.

At the same time, the hospital center is now operating at less than 50 percent capacity, and one knowledgeable source said that the break-even point for an institution like the center is 80 to 85 percent capacity.

Both sides too have to be looking to the public's reaction to the situation. For ultimately it is the patients who will pay for whatever benefits, be they monetary or ones involving scheduling - which also affects costs in the long run - that the nurses are granted.