Nurses seeking union get a friendly reception

Pro-labor audience turns out to support organizing at UW Hospital system

UW-Health Nurses Meeting
The audience at the Madison Labor Temple gives a standing ovation to UW-Hospital and Clinic Authority nurses after they talk about their campaign to form a union Wednesday Night. (Erik Gunn photo)

Nurses seeking to revive their union at the UW Hospital and Clinics brought their campaign to a friendly audience Wednesday night, urging members of the community to join their cause and persuade the hospital system’s board and administration to work with them.

Staffing, workloads, and the relationship between nurses and hospital management, from immediate supervisors to the top leadership, are the root issues that led to the unionizing drive, a panel of working nurses who are part of the union campaign told some 160 or so people who filled a sprawling second-story meeting hall at the Madison Labor Temple during the hour-long meeting. 

Those problems could lead to poorer patient care if not addressed, panel members said. 

“We’re here tonight because we care,” Ani Weaver, a 16-year veteran nurse and one of the panel members, told the crowd. “We’re looking for community support. We’re asking you to amplify our voice at UW Health.”

While many may know the flagship UW Hospital for its high profile in regional health care, such as being a level 1 trauma center, “UW really is a community hospital,” Weaver said “And it’s our belief that we need our union back to advocate for our patients and to advocate for community health.”

First public rally

The presentation marked the union drive’s first public rally since nurses began organizing quietly last summer, and the largest display yet of the campaign, which has already twice sought to bring its case directly to the hospital system’s board of directors — first in December and again a week ago.

As many as 2,000 nurses work for the UW Hospitals and Clinics, making the organizing effort the largest in the state in recent memory and at least one of the largest nationally in the health care field.

It is also a direct challenge to a lesser-known feature of 2011’s Act 10 — the law that then- Gov. Scott Walker passed soon after he first took office stripping public employees of most union rights. 

The law that created the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority (UWHCA) in 1996, separating the hospital system from the University of Wisconsin, included language that assumed continued collective bargaining rights for hospital system employees. Act 10, in one sentence, ended collective bargaining for UWHCA employees once existing contracts expired.

Nurses report increased pressure on themselves and their colleagues as the UW Hospital system restructures its organization and staff, driving up turnover and increasing vacancies. “There’s been fewer nurses required to do more work,” Weaver said.

UW-Health-Nurses-Meeting
Kate Walton, a UW-Health nurse, left, speaks as colleagues Courtney Maurer, center, and Ani Weaver, right, listen during a discussion Wednesday night of the concerns that led them to seek a union at the hospital system on Wednesday, Jan. 29. (Photo by Erik Gunn)

“We’ve had lots of staff leave,” agreed Kate Walton, an emergency department nurse for four years. “We’re all very proud to work at UW Hospital, [but] we’ve seen a lot of burnout. We’ve seen a lot of good, experienced nurses leaving.”

In the years since the system went non-union, UWHCA management has instituted a series of measures to invite feedback from nurses and other employees. Among those are a group of nurses councils, most of them made up of about 20 nurses each, that bring questions and concerns about issues such as improving patient safety to the administration.

“These avenues have provided valuable feedback that has helped shape the decisions and direction of the organization, enabling us to provide remarkable healthcare to our patients,” UWHCA said in a statement in December after the unionizing effort first went public. “UWHCA will continue to support our robust existing system of employee and nurse engagement.”

After the Jan. 23 board meeting at which the nurses renewed their call for union representation, the authority released a follow-up statement declaring it would not recognize the union, but acknowledging that “the nurses raised concerns on issues related to staffing and internal communications.” 

“We are listening hard to their concerns and share their commitment to quality patient care,” the statement added. “We will be redoubling our efforts to work with our nurses, through our nursing councils to address them. UW Health leaders remain fully committed to working with nurses directly to strengthen our system of shared governance to empower nurses in all roles to achieve quality patient and family centered care.”

Those efforts aren’t working, according to the nurses who spoke Wednesday night. 

‘Our voices don’t go anywhere’

“Our voices don’t go anywhere. Change does not happen,” said Courtney Maurer, a cardiac intensive care unit nurse who chairs one of the nurses councils. When problems in care arise, “We brainstorm ways that can help,” she continued. “But there are ears that aren’t listening.”

By contrast, she and Weaver said, when the union was present in the hospital, nurses were able to express concerns openly and felt heard and respected in the process. 

According to officials of Service Employees International Union-Health Care Wisconsin (SEIU-HCWI), a substantial majority of nurses working for the UW Hospital system have signed cards authorizing the union to represent them. Because Act 10 eliminated collective bargaining at UW Health, the nurses and the union have instead asked for a voluntary recognition and an agreement to “meet and confer” over issues, and have specified that they are not proposing a formal collective bargaining agreement. 

They are also asking that the authority reinstate previous standards requiring “just cause” for firing employees and allowing employees to have a union member present when meeting with supervisors over disciplinary matters.

Nurses said Wednesday evening that they’ve met with six of the UWHCA board’s 16 board members hoping to make their case individually with them.

To date, however, the hospital authority has rejected the union’s efforts, equating any dealings with the union with collective bargaining and therefore illegal. Labor law experts have disputed that interpretation.

UW-Health Nurses Meeting
A supporter speaks during a meeting Wednesday night at the Madison Labor Temple at which UW-Hospital and Clinic Authority nurses talk about their campaign to form a union. (Erik Gunn photo)

After a standing ovation for the UW Hospital nurses who spoke Wednesday evening, enthusiastic support flowed in a question-and-answer session that followed.

A recent nursing graduate who works outside the UW Health system observed that staffing problems the nurses were reporting don’t just affect patient care. For the prospective nursing student, she said, “If you guys don’t have time to take care of patients, that’s the kind of training you’re getting.”

A UW-Health doctor, who asked not to be named out of concern for retaliation in the workplace, asked how physicians in the system could help. Maurer welcomed his offer of solidarity. 

“When nurses don’t have a voice, we’re not comfortable going to others, like physicians,” she said.

Others in the audience asked how members of the public sympathetic to the nurses might help. Mike Lauer, who directs SEIU’s Wisconsin health care division, encouraged people to join social media networks being created to bolster the campaign and to sign a letter to the UWHCA board urging it to recognize the union and agree to a meet-and-confer process.

The UW Health nurses’ union drive is also getting attention elsewhere in Wisconsin. “This is not the only group of workers that are facing this problem,” Outagamie County Executive Thomas Nelson told the panel. 

Nurses in his own part of the state have reported some of the same challenges, he said. The UW Health organizing campaign “could catch fire around the state…I thank you for all that you have done.”

Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.