More than 15 years ago, Roni Malloy took an ethics course at a Charleston, S.C., nursing school that she says taught her two things: "Nurses do not strike, nurses do not join unions."

But now at Prince William Hospital in Manassas, Malloy and scores of other nurses are preparing to walk off their jobs over issues of pay, staffing and benefits.

Despite her training, Malloy says she is not being disloyal to her profession. "We're working to better the profession, not betray it," she says.

Hers is a profession in huge demand at the nation's hospitals, but working conditions are often the subject of complaints and coffee-break slander.

Being a nurse, she says, is like rearing 10 kids. "Everybody needs you," she said. "Everybody. I would go home every day feeling so tired. It's just hard to describe, we were so overworked."

Malloy, 35, who is separated and lives in a modest Manassas apartment with her two young sons, makes about $16,000 a year, a salary that is below what many hospitals in Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia pay their nurses. She has worked at Prince William Hospital for three years, at first on the patient floors, and now in the intensive care unit.

While Malloy says she likes her job, she also says that she is prepared to do something registered nurses have never done in Virginia: strike. "I could hold out a month if I had to," she said. "I could hold out longer than that, too, but it would be really tough."

This week Malloy's union, Local 724 of the Service Employees International Union, came to the brink of a job action, but suddenly retreated when they believed the public hospital was ready to discuss their demands for the first time in two weeks. The nurses voted Thursday to postpone the strike until Aug. 25, thinking that the hospital would meet with them next week. But the hospital says now it will not negotiate because the nurses are still threatening to strike.

Malloy, like most of the other 130 nurses at the 154-bed Prince William Hospital, says she is not eager to strike. Her financial situation, though it would be strained by a strike, is tough already. Malloy pays $277 a month for her two-bedroom apartment, and another $300 for babysitting costs. Add gas for her 1974 Dodge Dart and incidentals, and that doesn't leave much left over.

To Malloy, the militancy among nurses is no surprise. "There are plenty of nurses out there, but so many of them are not working," she said. "It's because there's no incentive to work."

Malloy says that a good deal of the problem for nurses -- not just at Prince William but at hospitals around the country -- is an inability to feel proud of their work because of the work conditions.

"You just get very frustrated," she said. "When you're that busy, it's very frustrating -- you feel like you can't complete anything. You don't even have time to feel proud, you don't have time to feel anything but tired."

Moreover, the hospital management compounds the problem by failing to treat its nurses as integral cogs of the hospital machinery, she said. " Hospital lawyer Joel I. Keiler keeps talking about 'warm bodies' -- about how it's going to be so easy to replace us with 'warm bodies,' " she said. "I just think I'm worth more than that. I didn't go through three years of nursing school for nothing, to be replaced with a 'warm body.' "

The nurses' demands in Prince William are modest in Malloy's eyes, though hospital administrators have branded some of them "outrageous." But to Malloy and some of the other nurses at Prince William, their demands boil down to one element: recognition.

"I feel like I've got an awful lot of responsibility and that I work very hard at what I do," said Linda Thomason. "I think I'm a pretty decent nurse. But the compensation we get is not equal to that."

Another nurse, Vicki Curtis, has been at Prince William for two years. She agrees with Malloy and Thomason about the need for recognition of a difficult job.

"I'm a professional," she said. "I have a B.S. in nursing that took a long time to get. I'm not a maid, I'm not a handmaiden. It's a matter of getting recognition for the work that we do. No one seems to be listening -- not the hospital or the community.

"Nurses have been in this position for years. The community thinks that you are there to make sacrifices, to be like a second mother for patients. And we all do that. But nursing is my profession, not my life -- can you understand that? And in that profession, we want to be paid fairly and treated fairly."