A vote Wednesday night by hundreds of nurses who work for UW Health to strike if the hospital system’s management does not recognize their union followed months of talks, meetings and strategizing among more than 2,000 nurses employed by the largest provider. of health care in Madison.
Nurses involved in the campaign say the decision to pursue industrial action became increasingly inevitable in the face of the administration’s refusal to address their reasons for seeking union representation.
Those reasons include concerns about staffing ratios, the impact of poor hospital staffing on patients and their safety, and a tipping system to get employee feedback that nurses say ignores more critical issues.
“They put all these good words into shared governance and conversations” with employees, nurse Amelia Zepnick said Thursday. Instead, she said, administrators take actions that directly affect patients as well as the people who care for them “without involving the bedside team.”
A former social worker who became a UW Health nurse three years ago after training for her new career, Zepnick said she and her colleagues have high expectations of themselves and the care they want to provide.
“There has to be something we can do to make this better,” she said. Decisions that ignored objections made by nurses and other staff “led to this feeling or urgency — like, somebody’s going to get hurt.”
During three Zoom meetings attended by hundreds of UW Health nurses Wednesday evening, 99% of attendees voted to stage a three-day walkout in September to underscore their demand that hospital system leaders voluntarily recognize and bargaining with their unions.
The walkout would begin on September 13 and end on September 17. A 10-day notice to management, required under federal labor law, would follow. Union organizers have said they will continue to call on UW Health management to change its stance.
In a statement Thursday, UW Health called the strike vote “disappointing” and said the hospital system’s ability to recognize the merger was a matter of legal dispute.
Launched in 2019
More than 1,500 of the 2,600 nurses employed by UW Health — officially UW Hospital and Clinics — have signed charters in support of representation by SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), according to the union.
The union organizing drive has been underway since 2019 and is the largest in Wisconsin in recent memory. While the union’s campaign began before the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses say the pandemic worsening conditions that prompted them to seek union representation.
UW Health management has refused to consider recognizing the merger, claiming it was prohibited under state law — an interpretation that has since been rejected by outside legal analysts.
Shari Signer, one of the nurses active in leading the organization, said Thursday that the prospect of a job action has been lingering since the beginning of the effort.
“We’ve known since we started this that there was a good chance we’d end up in a hit,” Signer said.
But with public support, as well as support from Gov. Tony Evers and a favorable legal opinion from Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, Signer said, “we were hoping that the hospital administration and the board would have sat down and listened to some of these people.” that say, ‘Hey, there’s a problem—most nurses are standing up and saying, there’s something wrong at this hospital and we need help fixing it.’
The last chapter of the union drive opened with Kaul’s legal opinion, released in June. Kaul concluded that state law does not prohibit UW Health from engaging with unions. His opinion was consistent with two previous legal analyses.
“It was the first time in a very long time that we got good news,” said UW Health nurse Mary Jorgensen, another leader in the union’s organizing campaign.
Act 10 ambiguity
Collective bargaining rights for UW Health employees were enshrined in Wisconsin law when the hospital system split from the University of Wisconsin in 1995, coming under a new corporate entity: the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority.
By mid-2021, a prevailing assumption was that Act 10, the 2011 law passed under then-Gov. Scott Walker and stripping most public employees of most of their union rights, blocked collective bargaining entirely for hospital system workers.
Act 10 deleted language guaranteeing union rights for UW Health employees. When existing union contracts expired in 2014, health system leaders refused to negotiate new contracts, claiming Act 10 prohibited them from doing so.
However, starting last year, three consecutive memos – the first from an attorney for SEIUsecond from Nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Council and the third by Kaul – all concluded that there is no such prohibition.
Act 10, Kaul acknowledged in his attorney general’s opinion, limited collective bargaining for state and municipal employees to wages only.
But those restrictions do not apply to the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority, Kaul wrote, because it is neither a state employer nor a municipal employer. And he found no language in the law that limits collective bargaining in the health care system. “The Authority has broad powers to contract with its employees and set their terms of employment and may choose to do so through a voluntary collective bargaining process,” he wrote.
In a statement Thursday, UW Health stood by its position that “the health system cannot collectively bargain under Wisconsin law, due to the Act 10 legislation passed in 2011.” Noting that Kaul’s opinion differed, the statement added that “only the courts of the legislature can give a definitive answer.”
The statement said UW Health is following the advice of its legal staff as well as outside legal consultants. He also cited old memos from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau and the Legislative Council stating that Act 10 prevents collective bargaining by the hospital system.
However, those memos preceded the Legislative Council’s latest letter which ended differently. UW Health’s statement did not refer to the latest memo.
‘Digging in their heels’
The assertions in Thursday’s statement were similar to messages nurses received from hospital system CEO Alan Kaplan after Kaul issued his opinion in June.
“We were amazed that they were digging their heels into the ground and they’re still trying to hide behind the 10th Act,” Jorgensen said Thursday. With that response, “a lot more nurses got really upset.”
In the weeks that followed, the prospect of some kind of job action became an increasingly open secret in the hospital system.
“We just knew, they’re never going to lie down and just recognize us,” Jorgensen said.
The Dane County NAACP sent messages to UW Health in June and again on Aug. 13 supporting the nurses. NAACP President Greg Jones criticized the administration for not meeting with Kaul to discuss his legal opinion and for not recognizing the union.
On Friday, Aug. 19, a letter signed by about 250 nurses went to Kaplan directly announcing the prospect of a strike and demanding that UW Health recognize the union as a means of working with nurses on staffing, retention and quality issues. careful.
The following Tuesday, August 23, UW Health’s human resources office announced in an email a 3.5% raise across the board. A footnote listed among those who would not be “employees in active discipline.” The same day, according to the nurses, the health system’s chief nursing officer, Rudy Jackson, announced that the striking nurses would be disciplined for not being called in or showing up for work.
“It felt really offensive and vindictive,” Zepnick said. Union activists wondered whether promised raises or the threat of discipline for strikers would dampen what they saw as growing support. Instead, “she actually pissed off the staff,” Signer said — prompting a mass gathering of nurses who confronted the chief nursing executive Wednesday morning.
That evening, the nurses held their Zoom meetings to vote on a walkout and confirm dates. Demand to attend was so high, Jorgensen said, that instead of the usual schedule of two appointments — one at 5 p.m. and one at 8 p.m. — nurses had to schedule a third session between two others.
Now both the nurses and the hospital administration are waiting.
“This strike will be uncomfortable for patients and our staff, but we will get through it and never lose sight of our shared mission to meet the needs of our patients,” UW Health’s statement concluded.
Jorgensen and her nursing colleagues readily admit their anxiety about what lies ahead.
“Everybody gets scared and nervous,” Jorgensen said. “But some of us feel more strongly that nothing will ever change unless we are recognized as a union out there.”
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