UW Hospital Nurse, Colin Gillis, is a rank and file member of UW Nurses United. He spoke with Labor Radio about the ongoing discussions taking place between the UW nurses and management.
REPORTER: UW Hospital narrowly avoided a strike this past September on the part of its nurses. There was a preliminary type of agreement with UW management. Can you explain to listeners what that was?
COLIN GILLIS: So Governor Evers and the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission mediated a conversation that produced an agreement between the administration and the UW Nurses United. That agreement gave us a form of recognition in “meet and discuss,” which is what the hospital prefers to call meet and confer, where we have regular meetings that result in non-binding agreements that allow us to have a voice at the table where some of the decisions are made about hospital policy and compensation everything. And then the question of collective bargaining was referred to a legal process that was accelerated. We applied for recognition under the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, WERC, and we’re still waiting to hear back from them. We also won the respect for our constitutionally-protected union rights. Nurses were getting threatened with discipline under the no solicitation policy for trying to organize their co-workers, which is a clear violation of our right to to have a union and to organize a union. And then we also won the reinstatement of one of our co-workers who’d been fired for organizing.
REPORTER: What are the main issues that prompted you to want to organize?
COLIN GILLIS: We’ve experienced this staffing crisis more or less continuously since the hospital implemented something called “lean staffing” back in 2018. For me in particular it was our lack of voice in discussions about policy around the pandemic. As soon as we started organizing we had a union. We still have a union. We’re building infrastructure and we have more recognition than we used to prior to September. But it’s only through our collective organizing that we can force the administration to include us in that kind of life and death conversation.
REPORTER: Gillis explains the unique public authority arrangement that the UW hospital has had with the state of Wisconsin since the 1990s.
COLIN GILLIS: In exchange for not taking any general-purpose revenue they were given fiscal independence from the state. UW Health sets its own budget, it decides how to expand regionally–which has been doing aggressively–, and it decides what to pay nurses, it decides what to pay all of its employees, it decides what’s an acceptable budget based on how it sees its own priorities.
REPORTER: The unique public private status of UW hospital means that a decision needs to be made about what rules the nurses Union falls under: the state of Wisconsin or the federal government.
COLIN GILLIS: If WERC says that we fall under their umbrella, we will have an election and that election will be to authorize Service Employees International Union to represent us in collective bargaining negotiations with full collective bargaining rights, not collective bargaining rights restricted by Act 10. Employees of businesses of all kinds deserve union recognition. To me it’s not even a question. I have a human right as an employee to union representation and to organize collectively with my co-workers to improve our workplace. And the fact that UW Health has “W” in the name and that there are political appointees on the board, and that I have access to a pension plan, doesn’t mean that I don’t have right to a union.
REPORTER: How have the meet and confer meetings been going?
COLIN GILLIS: We had one full “meet and discuss” meeting and we had one follow-up meeting which was smaller. They’ve both gone really well and I think both the hospital administration and the union are excited to collaborate on improving the working conditions for nurses and make the hospital system better.
REPORTER: How can listeners support UW nurses at this point?
COLIN GILLIS: The most important thing they can do is support organized labor in their neighborhood, in their workplace.
[REPORTER]: That was Colin Gillis, a UW nurse.
Report by Jeanine Ramsey. Photo courtesy Jeanine Ramsey. Web production by Anyu Li.