The COVID-19 pandemic has presented numerous challenges for frontline medical workers. Since last March, nurses and hospital workers have faced staffing shortages, inadequate personal protective equipment, and medical misinformation.
Susan Nicol, a registered nurse at UW Health, said at a press conference today that many nurses are afraid to speak up for fear of being fired. When they do speak up, nurses often find that UW Health administrators don’t address their concerns.
“Since 2014, without our union, we have been at-will employees that management can fire without just cause. That adds a large measure of fear for nurses who want to speak up about staffing levels, patient safety, fair treatment,” says Nicol.
UW Health nurses had a union until 2014 – after Act 10 restricted collective bargaining rights and the nurses’ contract expired. Nurses at UW Health announced their intention to organize in 2019. Since then, they’ve been campaigning to have the UW Hospitals and Clinics Authority board recognize their right to unionize.
Mariah Clark, a registered nurse at UW Health, says medical workers deserve to have a place at the table when setting future workplace health measures.
“It’s only this Spring that we have finally gotten to the point where we are allowed to change our masks once a day, and honestly, that still isn’t safe. And we can never, ever let this happen again. We need a strong, authentic, independent say at our hospital, we need the ability to collectively negotiate for safe staffing, adequate personal protective equipment, continuing education benefits, fair and flexible scheduling, and other urgent standards,” says Clark.
Earlier this week, Madison alders Patrick Heck and Lindsay Lemmer introduced a resolution in support of the UW Health nurses’ organizing efforts. The resolution is cosponsored by Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, Common Council President Syed Abbas, and several other alders.
The UW Hospitals and Clinics Authority board has maintained that Act 10 prevents them from negotiating a new agreement. That’s a claim that some labor leaders reject.
In the council’s proposed resolution, alders state explicitly that according to state attorneys, neither Act 10 nor any other state law stops UW Health from negotiating with nurses.
When asked for comment on the proposed resolution, a UW Health spokesperson wrote in an email that, quote:
“UW Health leaders and staff nurses work together directly and collaboratively to meet the needs of our patients while following all state and federal laws related to our workforce. 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.”
This is the exact same statement provided to WORT in May, when state legislators, including Governor Tony Evers, spoke in support of UW Health nurses’ union efforts.
The spokesperson declined to comment further.
According to the UW Health website, shared governance is a system of collaborative decision-making in which nurses “help guide” decisions that affect them alongside management.
Ashley Campbell, a UW Health registered nurse, says that system doesn’t work.
“Since we lost our union, we have had no effective means of ensuring that our concerns are addressed. What we have instead, so-called ‘shared governance,’ is not an independent voice for us, and it is not able to hold management accountable for what we need,” says Campbell.
The proposed Common Council resolution calls on the UW Hospitals and Clinics Authority board and UW Health to hold a union election, without interference or intimidation, before the end of the year.
If UW Health holds an election, and a simple majority of nurses who participate vote in favor of unionizing, the negotiation process to create an official union contract will begin.
Earlier this spring, nurses at nearby Meriter Health successfully renegotiated a contract with their employers, a process that was also supported by area Democratic lawmakers.
Reporting for WORT news, I’m Seeger Gray.
PHOTO: Seeger Gray / WORT news