At Capitol rally, nurses raise their voices for union rights

Politicians join with SEIU to call for collective bargaining for health care workers — including at UW Hospital & Clinics

nurses union rally
Carol Lemke, RN, left, and Shari Signer, RN, speak at a rally Saturday marking Nurses Week and calling for union representation for nurses and other health care workers. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

A blurb for the Today show was typical of the top hits in a Google search on ‘nurses week 2021’ over the weekend: “Where to score free coffee, cookies, tacos and more.”

But in front of the State Capitol Saturday morning, scores of nurses and their supporters wanted a lot more than freebies. They called for respect and a voice on the job.

Laura Kasten, RN (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

“We were deeply betrayed at all levels of power and unsupported while drowning in vast numbers of dying patients,” said University of Wisconsin Hospital nurse Laura Kasten, who spent much of the last year working in a COVID-19 unit. “Executives and politicians called us heroes but refused to take action. And we’ve had no avenue to make the changes needed to safely and adequately care for our patients.”

Members and allies of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, part of the Service Employees International Union, gathered on the Capitol steps overlooking Madison’s State Street for their own observation of Nurses Week. The seven-day celebration of their profession began Thursday, May 6 and concludes Wednesday, May 12 — Florence Nightingale’s birthday.

The SEIU event — which included unionized nurses as well as non-union nurses who want a union, along with political allies including Gov. Tony Evers — also served as a pointed reminder of how COVID-19 has scourged health care practitioners on the front lines of the pandemic that is still underway.

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

“This was an absolutely brutal year for our nurses and health care professionals,” said Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway. “It was you who held the hands of patients as they battled this disease. It was you who held the cell phones as families said their last goodbyes. Many of you caught the virus yourself. And you worked relentlessly against this disease every day.”

She described the pandemic’s demands on everything from the city’s transit and utility operations to emergency medical services and the public health department. In a litany that she repeated several times, each of those agencies and institutions “worked hard,” Rhodes-Conway said. “But nurses worked harder.”

Meriter contract

The rally celebrated the contract that the nurses’ union negotiated in March at UnityPoint Health-Meriter hospital in Madison after a threatened walkout. And it also telegraphed a union campaign that is shifting into higher gear.

“The pandemic exposed deep, systemic problems throughout our hospitals,” said Meriter nurse Carol Lemke. “We have struggled with inadequate personal protective equipment, understaffing and a lack of transparency and communication from management. Health care workers everywhere felt they had no meaningful way to address their concerns, and our urgent pleas were ignored.”

Lemke added: “But at Meriter, because we have a union, we reached an awesome agreement with management that gave us more time off to heal, ensure we are fully valued for our work, and provides us with a voice in the event of future health care emergencies.”

The Meriter contract outcome has energized other health care union supporters in Madison.

“When nurses have a union voice, we can address longstanding problems and make sure we have adequate paid sick leave, staffing and real input into how we respond and plan for future crises, so that we never have to go through what we went through this year again,” said Andrea Kwong, a nurse at non-union St. Mary’s Hospital.

The loudest message Saturday was directed at the University of Wisconsin Hospital & Clinics Authority, where just a few months before the pandemic began nurses had begun organizing for union recognition and representation after losing union rights to Act 10, the 2011 law with which then-Gov. Scott Walker eviscerated union rights for most public employees in Wisconsin.

“When we had a union, management had to do more than just listen or hear our concerns,” said Shari Signer, a UW Hospital nurse for nearly two decades. “We were able to get them to take action. Now health care workers at UW and across the state are in crisis — not just because of the impact of COVID, but also because we do not have a union voice to heal and move forward.”

Focusing on UW Hospital

In December 2019, after a majority of nurses signed cards seeking union representation at UW Hospital & Clinics, they went public with demands for recognition.

Then, “the pandemic hit and we did what nurses always do,” said Signer. “We put our heads down and focused on caring for our patients.”

In the year since, “while administration has been making decisions from the safety of their homes and Zoom meetings, we’ve been going in day after day, facing the fear and uncertainty that loomed over us,” she continued. “This pandemic showed us that no one was coming to save us — not the federal government, not our administration. If we want to protect ourselves and our patients, we must do it ourselves through our union rights and negotiations.”

The UW Hospital union drive has been complicated both by the pandemic and by a provision in Act 10. Most of the employees covered by the law retained the right to minimal union representation — but only for wage negotiations up to the rate of inflation. But the law repealed entirely  collective bargaining rights of UW Hospital and Clinics employees. Those rights had been enshrined in the 1996 legislation that had separated the health care system from the University of Wisconsin and created the UW Hospital & Clinics Authority.

In recognition of Act 10’s limitations, the nurses and the union have emphasized they would seek a voluntary “meet and confer” arrangement with the UW Hospital system’s management, but to date executives have refused to entertain even that sort of a relationship.

Employee councils and union voice

The hospital system’s management has maintained that its “shared governance” structure, with councils of employee groups meeting to provide staff input on certain topics, provides employees with the voice they’re calling for in seeking union recognition.

But nurses at Saturday’s rally said that system was too limited to address their most important concerns.

“I’ve tried to engage in UW’s process for making our voices heard, and it’s a sham,” Kasten told the rally. “I went to one of their listening sessions and said my piece, and all I got was a thank you card.”

In interviews before and after the rally, other nurses described what they said were the limits in the existing system.

Delia Pertzborn, RN (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

“The topics of those councils are set by executives,” said Delia Pertzborn. “So we get a say in what they want us to have a say in — we don’t get a say in anything that they don’t want us to have a say in.”

Nurses contend that an emphasis on efficiency has contributed to stress and driven up turnover.

“Oftentimes, we work short staffed, and we still get admissions and it doesn’t really matter,” said Ashley Campbell. “Even if we try saying that things aren’t safe, it falls on deaf ears.”

Ashley Campbell, RN (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

“Efficiency is something that nurses don’t really have a choice over in the first place,” Pertzborn said. “It’s very frustrating, because UW is the No. 1 hospital in the state. I want us to continue to be an outstanding place to receive care and to do that, nurses are going to need a union voice to be able to directly communicate with executives about what is needed at the bedside.”

Speaking to the rally, newly graduated nurse Ian Todaro, who has worked as a nursing assistant at UW Hospital during his nursing training, called the demand for representation part of a nursing tradition of patient advocacy.

“Why wouldn’t bedside nurses, the frontline medical experts who actually deliver patient care, have a strong voice in how that care is delivered?” Todaro asked.

Support also came from Erick Sheftic, an attending physician at UW Hospital. Among the first lessons medical students learn, he said, “is that you better listen to the nurses — and that failure to do so is a supremely bad decision.”

That lesson has remained with him, he continued. “So when a nurse says something’s wrong, I’m listening. And that’s why I’m here — because hundreds of nurses are saying that something is wrong.”

Political backing

Saturday’s rally showed that after resting on a back burner at a low simmer for the past year, the campaign by UW Hospital & Clinics nurses seeking a union is heating up again.

Politicians who turned out to show their support — including Attorney General Josh Kaul, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, and more than a half-dozen lawmakers, all Democrats — signaled they plan to turn up the flame as well.

Gov. Tony Evers addresses nurses supporting union rights. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

In the last days of negotiations at Meriter in March, Evers publicly advocated on behalf of the nurses’ union. Saturday, he reiterated that support.

“This pandemic has exposed how critical you are to keeping our communities safe and healthy,” the governor said. “And it only further highlighted the need for essential workers to be able to unionize and be represented in the workplace.”

Evers’ original 2021-23 budget proposal included provisions to restore collective bargaining rights for “essential workers” — one of hundreds of items that the Republican majority on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee eliminated from the budget on Thursday, May 6.

Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

“I am so grateful that we have a governor who puts these protections first and in the budget,” Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) told the rally. She called it “absolutely shameful and embarrassing for our state” when the Republicans stripped them out. 

But she hinted that lawmakers who support the unionization effort have more plans to keep raising the issue.

“I promise you that you’re going to be hearing from me and my Democratic colleagues very soon,” Agard said. “We’re not going to stop until the UW nurses and health care workers have these exact same workers’ rights.”