UW Hospital nurses rally community support for union drive

Allies make their case to the board, which is rejecting the nurses’ demands

Nurses station in busy hospital
Nurses station in a busy hospital (Generic hospital photo by FS Productions/Getty Images)

Amid a standoff between the University of Wisconsin hospital system and nurses who work there over union representation, the pro-union nurses are expanding their campaign to a broader base of community organizations.

view of UW hospital across Lake Mendota
UW Health University Hospital, the UW–Madison Health Sciences Learning Center, and the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research in Madison, Wisconsin (photo by Av9, Wikimedia)

Barred by Act 10 from collective bargaining, the nurses, who have joined SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, are asking to be recognized and seeking a “meet and confer” relationship in which they can have input with the hospital system management (see sidebar below).

Last week, for the third month in a row, the hospital system’s board heard calls to recognize and work with the nurses’ union to address complaints about working conditions in the hospital system.

But at this meeting, on Thursday, Feb. 27, it wasn’t the nurses’ union speaking, but a collection of community organizations that have endorsed their unionizing effort. 

Already the Dane County Board has passed a resolution calling for the hospital system to recognize the nurses’ union. The Dane County chapter of the NAACP and two interfaith organizations have also spoken up on their behalf. 

Those groups, along with the South Central Federation of Labor, brought a crowd of more than 200 people who piled into a University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health lecture hall at the monthly board meeting of the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority (UWHCA). 

“We care about the nurses and their union, with a true seat at the table and a voice that is respected and protected,” Kevin Gundlach, president of the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL), told the board during a public comment period that he had requested for his organization and several others. In all, seven speakers addressed the UWHCA board, all of them taking up the nurses’ cause.

“You’re a public board, you answer to the public, and the public is here to tell you: We support UW nurses and their union, and we sincerely hope you will do the same,” said Mary Bell of Worker Justice Wisconsin, a collaboration of faith groups and unions.

Growing pattern

In reaching out beyond their own numbers, the pro-union UWHCA nurses are taking part in a growing trend, particularly among public employees, Joseph McCartin, a history professor at  Georgetown University, tells the Wisconsin Examiner

“This is part of an emerging pattern for public sector workers in many settings, including those where they [already] have collective bargaining rights,” says McCartin, who is also executive director for the university’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.

Joseph McCartin
Georgetown University Professor Joseph McCartin

At Georgetown, McCartin works with “Bargaining for the Common Good,” a project that brings together unions and community groups “who understand that in the current environment, public sector workers need to have strong alliances with the community,” he says. “Without such alliances collective bargaining where it exists can easily take on a dynamic that divides the public workers from the community.”

As an example, McCartin points to an 11-day strike by unionized teachers in Chicago last fall. Teachers had built relationships with community groups for some time before the walkout, he says, and during the stoppage they called on the school district and the city to address some of those groups’ concerns, such as the city’s housing crisis and the city’s population of homeless students, which exceeds 10,000. 

A year ago, in Los Angeles, striking teachers demanded an end to what he called an in-school “stop-and-frisk” policy that appeared to be racially targeted. “They also wanted support for the immigrant families that are so numerous in the LA school district,” McCartin says.

The 2018 “Red for Ed” job actions that produced wildcat walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, North Carolina, and other states also included engagement between teachers, who had no union rights, and parent groups. Like the teachers, he says, “they were upset that so many of these states hadn’t restored funding in 2018 even to what it was before the Great Recession.”

Laying the groundwork

In January, the SEIU and nurses involved in the UWHCA nurses’ organizing campaign drew a packed crowd to a meeting hall at the Madison Labor Temple, where they urged community members to turn out for the February board meeting in support.

SCFL’s Gundlach put in a request to address the UWHCA board and was given a 15-minute time slot on the agenda Thursday. 

As the comment period began, UW Medical School Dean Robert Golden, the board chair, declared, “We appreciate and value the compassion, dedication and talents of all the team members that deliver remarkable care to UW Health patients every day, and those that support them.” He added: “The board specifically recognizes that UW Health nurses are critical to patient care and UW Health, delivering consistently excellent and compassionate care to the sickest and most vulnerable of our population.”

Several of the people who spoke protested the tight time limit, which ran over by about five more minutes. 

“The short amount of time that you have afforded to this very important conversation seems to indicate little respect for the opinions of the nurses or of the public that this hospital was formed to serve,” said Rabbi Bonnie Margulis of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice. 

Margulis looked at hospital executives and the board’s chair, UW Medical School Dean Robert Golden and stated, “As a member of the public whose taxes go to pay for this hospital, I ask you, what is your plan moving forward to recognize the union?”

When there was no comment, she added, “It’s not a rhetorical question.”

“To clarify, we want to take advantage of this time to hear from you and from the members of the public,” Golden said. “The board will then discuss and we’ll come back with a response.”

‘The silence is deafening…’

Others who spoke on behalf of the nurses used the same tactic of addressing the board and then letting the silence hang.

Rep. Melissa Sargent
State Rep. Melissa Sargent

“I would like to know what it is that you are going to do to stand up for our nurses, for your nurses, for our community,” said state Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison). “They want a seat at the table. They want their voices heard.”

After a pause, she added, “The silence is deafening and disappointing.”

Gundlach, when neither board members nor executives answered his query — “Are you going to recognize the nurses union?” — followed up by reading from a UWHCA statement in January that because of Act 10, the hospital system could not recognize the union or “meet and confer to reach an agreement with it regarding the terms of UWHCA nurses’ employment.”

“We have heard from lawyers that say differently,” Gundlach said, calling on the board to sit down with its lawyers and the lawyers to whom he referred to discuss the issue — and to make it an evening meeting so members of the public could attend.

Speakers tied patient care to the nurses’ concerns about work schedules, staffing constraints and their complaints that the hospital system’s nurses’ councils lack the voice they’re supposed to provide for nurses to give input on working conditions and hospital practices.

“Their work and quality of care would all benefit from you truly hearing from them respectfully as valued employeesa seat at the table,” said Bell. “Why not provide simple, legal respect for these workers through voluntary recognition of their union?”

Yogesh Chawla
Dane County Supervisor Yogesh Chawla

Dane County Board Supervisor Yogesh Chawla told the UW hospital system board about  the county board’s Feb. 20 resolution calling for the system to recognize the union. Chawla was the lead sponsor for the resolution, with 26 co-sponsors; it passed on a voice vote with two recorded abstentions. At a news conference Thursday before the board meeting, Chawla said he expects other government bodies to endorse the union drive as well.

Chawla chided the UWHCA board for its announced plan to enter a closed session after the public comments. He urged instead a public discussion on the issue. 

“This is an opportunity for you to really take this process seriously, and to work collaboratively with your employees who are providing care to our community and to our patients,” Chawla said.

Hospital system’s board responds

After additional comments, however, the board went ahead with the closed session, emerging late in the afternoon with a written statement.

The statement didn’t respond directly to any of the public comments, although it indirectly reiterated UWHCA’s intention not to deal with the union, stating, “The Board believes it is in the best interests of UWHCA, its patients and employees, for UWHCA management to continue to work directly with employees to understand their concerns and to work together towards solutions.” 

It also said, “The Board recognizes management’s role and affirms its broad delegation to management to determine the terms and conditions of employment of UWHCA employees.”

At the same time, the statement said that the board “expects management to develop and implement a plan in collaboration with nurses and all other clinical and non-clinical staff to have a strong voice in issues that impact them.”

It added: “In addition to improving two-way communication, the Board expects management to actively engage in better understanding and addressing other issues important to sustaining a best place to work environment,” and to report back to the board “at regular intervals.”

Possible trend

While more unions, especially public unions, are engaging community support, McCartin at Georgetown University sees the UWHCA nurses as pioneers because they’re doing that in the organizing stage. “It could be a signal of something we’ll see more of,” he says. 

And because of where it’s happening, it may draw even more attention. Wisconsin was both the first state to enable public workers to unionize, he notes, and later, under then-Gov. Scott Walker, the first public-sector-union state to roll back union rights. 

Observes McCartin: “It’s sort of been ground zero in U.S. labor history for the public sector.”

Background: UW Hospital nurses’ union drive

At the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, both management and nurses say they want employees to have a stronger workplace voice.

Nurses engaged in a union drive say that a union would offer them that voice. To date, though, UW Health management has rejected working with the union, declaring that it is management’s job to ensure that the voices of nurses and other employees are heard. 

At the December meeting of the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority (UWHCA) board, nurses employed by the hospital system presented a statement announcing that a majority of their coworkers had signed cards seeking union representation with SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin.

They sought voluntary recognition of the union, an agreement to “meet and confer” with the union to address staffing and scheduling concerns, and the restoration of previous standards requiring just cause for firing and the right to union representation for people called into meetings with supervisors that could entail a disciplinary action.

The union drive, besides being the largest in Wisconsin in decades, stands out because of Act 10. Former Gov. Scott Walker’s law that erased most collective bargaining rights for most public employees included a provision that applied only to the UWHCA and went even further: It eliminated collective bargaining entirely. 

At the time, nurses working for the UWHCA — a public authority created in 1996 to separate the UW Hospital and Clinics from the rest of the University of Wisconsin — had union representation. The law that created the authority explicitly assumed continued collective bargaining. 

Citing the Act 10 provision, UWHCA has said it will not recognize the union and will not collectively bargain with it.

The nurses and their union, however, have said they are not seeking traditional collective bargaining toward a binding contract, acknowledging that Act 10 restriction. Instead, they’re asking for the right to “meet and confer” with hospital management about the issues they’ve raised in their campaign: complaints of overwork, understaffing, lack of professional respect and fears that those conditions could compromise patient care.

So far, the UWHCA has not conceded on that point.