Nurses, lawmakers, and healthcare workers gathered on the capitol steps in front of a crowd of over 50 people this past Saturday in Madison.
The Nurses Week Speak Out was coordinated to support the organizing nurses at UW-Health and encourage the UW Hospitals and Clinics Authority to recognize their union. For about an hour and a half rally attendees expressed appreciation for the work nurses did throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
One of the most notable supporters of the union effort and speakers at Saturday’s event, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers.
Addressing the nurses in the crowd, Governor Evers said, “This pandemic has exposed how critical you are to keeping our communities safe and healthy and has only further highlighted the need for essential workers to be able to unionize and be represented in the workplace.”
The Service Employees International Union, SEIU, was behind the event and is supporting UW-Health employees in their efforts to organize.
Nurses in the crowd at the top of state street wore scrubs and nodded knowingly when lawmakers detailed the challenges of the pandemic. Supporters wore purple SEIU masks and held signs that declared, “Nurses Demand a Union Voice.”
Many speakers, like Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, shared personal anecdotes about how the care of nurses has affected them.
“Both my kids were born at Meriter. Simon is 7 now and Henry is 4. The quality of care at Meriter, the quality of the nursing care in particular, was just phenomenal. So I want to say thank you to you on a personal level. I also want to say that that kind of quality of care is representative of what we see from nurses and medical professionals across Wisconsin day in and day out,” Kaul said.
UW-Health nurses have been unionized in the past. Their contract ended in 2014, a few years after Act 10. Since 2019, they’ve been fighting to get it back.
Mariah Clark works in the emergency department at UW-Health University Hospital and said nurses need a union in order to advocate for better conditions for themselves and by extension their patients.
“When we have a voice that’s actually heard we can do better for our patients and make our facilities the best places to both work and receive care,” Clark said.
Under a sunny sky on Saturday the crowd encouraged UW-Health nurse Laura Kasten to keep going when she choked up recounting her experience at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget the fear all of us felt as we stepped into the COVID rooms to care for these critically ill patients,” Kasten said.
Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes connected the UW-Health nurses union effort to poor treatment of essential workers during the pandemic and the broader struggle for economic equity.
“Over the course of the pandemic we’ve seen billionaire wealth increase. The richest people in our society are doing way better than they were at the beginning of this pandemic while working men and women still have to beg for the right to bargain,” Barnes told the crowd.
Madison’s Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway detailed the work the city has done to keep residents safe in the past year. She stressed it would’ve been for not without nurses.
“A year ago we were just beginning to understand what this pandemic might mean for us. Rapidly transforming city service operations to keep the public and our workers, from bus drivers to building inspectors to water utility staff, safe. The city worked hard, but nurses worked harder,” Rhodes-Conway said.
In addition to lawmakers, nurses from other Madison area hospitals and clinics showed solidarity for the UW-Health staff. Two St. Mary’s Hospital nurses recounted harrowing pandemic experiences and said nurses were left out when critical decisions were made.
In March the nurses union at UnityPoint Health – Meriter negotiated a new contract. Meriter staff said on Saturday that it was their union’s ability to work with hospital management that made all the difference throughout the pandemic.
State Senator Kelda Roys struck a hopeful note when she directed her message to UW Health leadership.
“Listen to your employees and respect your employees. Respect your patients. There is no stronger advocate for patients than the nurses who are providing the care and saving their lives day after day. You can do this UW Hospitals and Clinics. You can do this,” Roys said.
Representative Francesca Hong was more pointed.
“Shame on you. Our nurses deserve better pay. They deserve better. They deserve a seat at the table to collectively bargain. They deserve better benefits. They deserve a better normal,” said Hong.
In a statement to WORT a UW-Health spokeswoman said, “UW Health leaders and staff nurses have been working together directly and collaboratively to meet the needs of our patients while following all state laws on collective bargaining. Our robust system of nursing shared governance is part of what makes UW Health a great place to work and a place our patients receive truly remarkable care.”
UW-Health did not answer whether they would be recognizing the nurses union.
Governor Tony Evers’ budget proposal called for restoring collective bargaining rights for public workers, which would have included UW-Health nurses. The Republican controlled Joint Finance Committee removed that proposal last Thursday.