With backing from Madison alders, UW Health union drive kicks into higher gear

Campaign promotes independent voice for nurses as a remedy for current and future shortages

By: - September 4, 2021 9:00 am

Scrub tops such as those worn by nurses on duty on display Thursday in front of the City County Building in Madison. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

On Thursday, dozens of brightly colored garments were hung out in the morning sunshine in front of Madison’s City County Building.

Floating in the warm September breeze, they were the tops of scrub suits, the kind worn by nurses and other medical personnel. They hung from cables strung above and behind a podium. There, members of the city’s common council and nurses from the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics took turns speaking to a small gathering consisting of journalists and the nurses’ allies.

Each of the 50 scrub tops represented 200 nursing jobs across Wisconsin that would need to be filled over the course of the decade — 10,000 positions in all. That projection comes from a Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development forecast.

“One critical way that we can address this crisis-level shortage is by making sure all nurses have the ability to advocate for themselves, their family and their patients,” said Alder Lindsay Lemmer. “And that’s why we are asking the UW Hospitals and Clinics Authority Board to recognize and allow a fair union election process for nurses before the end of this year.”

That is the central demand in a resolution that Lemmer and Alder Patrick Heck introduced earlier in the week. Thursday’s event, tied to the coming Labor Day weekend, was held to publicize the resolution and the cause: union recognition and a contract for the nurses at the health care system, which brands itself UW Health.

By the end of 2021, the union campaign will mark the second anniversary of the UW Health board of directors meeting when a group of nurses showed up to announce that they had affiliated with the union, SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, part of the Service Employees International Union.

Nurse Mariah Clark speaks at an event Thursday organized by alders Patrick Heck, center, and Lindsay Lemmer, right, to draw attention to the organizing campaign at UW Health. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

The group demanded recognition for the union and talks with the management of UW Health to address their working conditions. Their demands were rejected.

In the interim came COVID-19. For nurses who have joined the union campaign, the pandemic only underscored their cause.

“The past year and a half has been brutal,” said Mariah Clark, a UW Health nurse for 13 years who has been active in the organizing effort, at the alders’ event Thursday. She described surges of COVID-19 patients “so sick they feel like they’re drowning” and shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) that forced her and her coworkers to reuse masks and gowns longer than they believed it was safe to do so.

“For years, nurses have felt frustrated by the disregard for the voices of bedside nurses,” said Clark. That frustration prompted the organizing drive.  “The pandemic only further aggravated the deep systemic problems at our hospital.”

She and her coworkers felt “a total lack of support from hospital executives and from many elected officials,” Clark said. “They call us essential. They call us heroes, but they don’t include us in any of the real decision making around staffing, patient safety or protective equipment.”

Organizing campaign rebuilds

Following the pandemic’s disruption, the organizing drive has been rebuilding this year.

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

After unionized nurses at UnityPoint Meriter hospital in Madison reached a new contract that they said met several pandemic-related demands, averting a strike in the process, SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin nurses held a rally on the steps of the state Capitol with Gov. Tony Evers, who declared his  support.

That rally was effectively a public relaunch of the UW Health union drive. The Madison Common Council resolution of support, introduced Tuesday, Aug. 31 and expected to go to a vote later in September, was the next public step, followed by Thursday’s event.

Until 2014 the health system’s nurses, along with other groups of employees, were represented by unions. Their employer was the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority, which the Legislature created in 1996 to legally separate the health system from the University of Wisconsin. That legislation also affirmed the health system employees’ collective bargaining rights.

In 2011, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican majority in the state Legislature enacted Act 10, largely eliminating collective bargaining rights for state and local government employees. The same legislation also erased the state statutes’ guarantee of bargaining rights for UW Health employees. 

Before the passage of Act 10, UW Health’s CEO at the time, Donna Katen-Bahensky, wrote to Walker, questioning why the legislation included UW Health at all. Katen-Bahensky wrote that “we were surprised to see provisions eliminating collective bargaining for UW Hospital and Clinics Authority (UWHCA) employees.”

She noted in her letter that 5,000 of the system’s 7,500 employees were included in collective bargaining. “We have a long history of collective bargaining and strong relationships with our labor unions,” she wrote. “Eliminating collective bargaining for UWHCA has no fiscal effect to the state since we receive no General Purpose Revenue.”

Nevertheless, when contracts at UW Health expired in 2014, Katen-Bahensky and Health management rebuffed efforts to persuade them to continue engaging with the unions. They took the position that Act 10 forbade them from negotiating new agreements.

Fear of firing

Until this summer, that appeared to be the prevailing  interpretation of the Act 10 changes where the hospital system was concerned: that the 2011 law explicitly barred formal collective bargaining at UW Health, just as it had put constraints on collective bargaining for state and local government employees.

But in a July 1 memo prepared for the union, its outside lawyers reported that after combing through all the relevant state laws as they now stand — those that apply to public employees and those that apply to the UW Hospital and Clinics — they found no evidence that collective bargaining at the hospital system was prohibited. It was no longer guaranteed, wrote Madison lawyers Lester Pines and Tamara Packard, but nowhere was it forbidden. A 2012 Marquette Law Review article had also come to a similar conclusion.

Referring to the union’s lawyers memo, Lemmer declared Thursday, “UW Health can voluntarily recognize a nurses’ union and they can start negotiating a new contract immediately.”

Without our union, we have been at-will employees that management can fire without just cause.

– Susan Nicol, registered nurse at UW Health

Throughout the organizing campaign, participating nurses have focused on what they have said is inadequate staffing, scheduling decisions, safety and direct input in the decisions the health care system management makes about those subjects. Nurses who worked there when there was still union representation say that they had that sort of input then. 

Registered Nurse Susan Nicol (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

“Being part of a union is key to solving many of the long-standing problems we’re facing in our current health care system,” said Susan Nicol, a 26-year UW Health nurse, at the alders’ event.

“Without our union, we have been at-will employees that management can fire without just cause,” Nicol added. “That adds a large measure of fear for nurses who want to speak up about staffing levels, patient safety, fair treatment. When we have that fear about losing our jobs, it’s not just a loss for nurses and our patients — it’s a loss for UW Health overall, because it removes a crucial check and balance.”

During the union’s current campaign, UW Health representatives have frequently responded with statements promoting the health system’s “shared governance” structure and asserting that management maintains a collaborative relationship with employees.

Nurses who spoke Thursday disputed that message.

Without the union, “we have had no effective means of ensuring that our concerns are addressed,” said Ashley Campbell, an oncology nurse. The shared-governance system “is not an independent voice for us, and it is not able to hold management accountable for what we need.” 

Campbell continued: “For us to truly share governance, we need an independent voice where nurses can meet by ourselves, conduct our own surveys, arrive at our own solutions and work with management as partners to implement them.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Erik Gunn
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.

MORE FROM AUTHOR