Nurses at UW Health have been pushing for a union since 2019, after their previous union dissolved in 2014 after the passage of Act Ten.
The UW Hospital and Clinics Authority, or UWHCA, say that they are unable to recognize any union after the passage of Act Ten. But the nurses say that Act Ten only removed the obligation to recognize a union, and the hospital can still recognize their union if they wanted to.
The back-and-forth between the nurses and their employer led to a near strike in September. That strike was called off just days before after SEIU, the union looking to represent the nurses, and UW Health found a different path. Both parties agreed to ask the state’s Employment Relations Commission to rule on whether or not the hospital was able to recognize a union.
Why push for a union? Kate Walton is a registered nurse at UW Health. She said last month that, since their union dissolved in 2014, working conditions at the hospital have gone downhill.
“My colleagues and I have really noticed a changed, even since I first started in 2016, a change in both the nurses ability to speak up on behalf of our patients, and things like staffing ratios and the ability to provide safe care for our patients,” Walton says.
Colin Gillis is a member of UW Nurses United, the nurses union, and works as a nurse at UW Health. He says that when nurses are treated better, it results in better care for the patients.
“We want a workplace that attracts and retains the best nurses because we believe the people of Wisconsin deserve the best healthcare in the world,” Gillis says. “So they deserve the best nurses in the world. To get those nurses, we need to have a world class hospital for nurses, as well as for patients.”
Late last month, the state’s Employment Relations Commission ruled that UW Health does not have to recognize a union. Now, UW Health Nurses have filed an appeal of that decision with the Dane County Circuit Court.
The appeal states that the commission failed to consider multiple facts in their argument that UW Health nurses are considered employees of the UWHCA, did not allow for a hearing to clarify any facts, and ultimately came to an incorrect interpretation of the law.
They ask that the ruling made by the Employment Relations Commission be reversed, and to enforce the hospital system to recognize and collectively bargain with the nurses’ union.
The ruling by the Employment Relations Commission only concerns mandatory union recognition. Voluntary union recognition has been the nurses goal since 2019, and multiple legal memos, including one by the state’s nonpartisan legislative council, who advises policymakers on legal and policy research, and by state Attorney General Josh Kaul, have said that the hospital can voluntarily recognize a union, and that Act 10 only removed the obligation to recognize a union.
Still, Gillis says that the hospital has been regularly talking with nurses in what they call “meet and discuss session,” where both administrators and nurses are able to talk about solutions to problems at the hospital.
Gillis says that those meetings between nurses and administration have been fruitful.
“Back in the fall, we started working with the administration on a peer-support system, where a nurse facing disciplinary action can have a peer, like a coworker, present with them in any disciplinary hearings to take notes and be a supporting presence,” Gillis says. “The administration has been working on that, and has asked for feedback from us on that program, and that program is coming out in the coming month.”
The appeal was submitted to the Dane County Circuit Court last week, and a hearing has not been set.
While UW Health says that they support the commission’s ruling, they said in a statement that they are petitioning the state Supreme Court to decide if they are able to voluntarily recognize a union. They say that they hope to have a ruling as soon as possible, but the state’s high court has not yet decided if they will take up UW Health’s petition.
Meanwhile, the nurses union is still working to get as many nurses as possible signed onto the union. According to Gillis, they have had several hundred nurses sign up for due-paying union membership, with more nurses signing on every day. Additionally, Gillis says that they’ve sent a petition to the National Labor Relations Board for their own opinion on whether or not they are able to be recognized and collectively bargain with the hospital. That application is still under review.
No matter what, Gillis says that voluntary recognition would be the easier route for everyone.
“…there’s no election, we just demonstrate to the administration’s satisfaction that the majority of nurses want SEIU to represent them, and they say ‘alright, okay,’ and we don’t have to have the NLRB or WERC get involved, we just recognize you and bargain a contract,” Gillis say.
Photo courtesy: Dave Bates / SEIU