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)
Two years into their campaign for a union at UW Health, nurses at the massive Madison-based health care system say the conditions that first prompted their organizing drive have grown worse.
Meanwhile, the hospital administration, which rejected unionization from the start, has embraced more aggressive tactics.
Nurses report that in recent weeks they have been called into meetings with supervisors where they have been scolded about the union campaign. Some also report that they have been threatened with arrest for gathering at shift change in parking lots outside hospital facilities to encourage coworkers to consider supporting unionization.
Shari Signer, a nurse who has been among those with a higher profile in the organizing campaign, said she was called in to a meeting with supervisors earlier this fall and accused of collecting signatures in support of the union while on work hours. Signer said she was speaking to coworkers about the union during breaks when she was not required to clock out.
About a week later, she got word back that “it was an educational moment, and that nothing would come of it,” Signer said. “But from that experience — definitely that is a valid concern that the employees have, because we are at-will employees and we could be fired for anything at the hospital, because we don’t have any rights.”
Other nurses have reported hearing anti-union messages from supervisors during employee evaluation sessions.
Two views of Act 10
The UW Health board and administration has maintained that Act 10 — the 2011 law stripping most collective bargaining rights from most public employees — made it unlawful to engage with a union.
Earlier this year, lawyers for the union, SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, began circulating a memo challenging that claim and arguing that Act 10 does not forbid the hospital system from recognizing or bargaining with a union — simply that state law currently does not require UW Health to bargain. In September, Madison’s Common Council cited that memo and unanimously endorsed a resolution calling on UW Health to clear the way for a “fair and fast union election” for nurses by the end of 2021.
UW Health hasn’t reacted directly, but has shown no signs of shifting its stance.
In August the hospital system hired Axley Brynelson, a Madison law firm that lists “union avoidance” among its areas of practice in representing management. UW Health also has a contract with a Chicago consulting firm in the business of combating unions and with a specialized niche in health care.
“It’s a waste of time, it’s a waste of money for UW to be using taxpayer Medicare Medicaid funds for antagonistic [tactics],” said Mary Jorgensen, an operating room nurse who is active in the union campaign.
In October UW Health’s board denied a request from union supporters to speak directly to the board about their complaints, asking them to submit written documents instead.
Staffing, scheduling and voice
From the start of their campaign in 2019, nurses seeking union representation have focused on staffing in the hospital system. The hospital’s embrace of a lean staffing model, they’ve said, has led to erratic scheduling and understaffing that ratchets up the pressure on nurses and has prompted increased overtime. Patient safety could be compromised, they fear.
Nurses say that they’re seeing colleagues quit positions in UW Health’s Madison hospitals. Some are going to the system’s clinics; others have left for other institutions.
COVID-19 made it all worse, they say. It added to staffing strains, and some nurses have blamed hospital system policies for an undersupply of needed personal protective equipment. And, they say, their concerns have not been heard.
“After the pandemic, we’re just exhausted and tired,” Jorgensen said. “We decided it’s time to reiterate that we’re feeling the same way we did two years ago.”
Last month, two weeks before the UW Health board’s Oct. 28 meeting, Jorgensen wrote to the board chair asking for a time slot at which nurses could speak about their concerns. The request was denied, but the nurses were told “we could submit written documentation,” Jorgensen said.
On Facebook, nurses began posting personal statements using the hashtag #WhyUWNursesNeedaUnion.
Because we’ve been sounding the alarm on these patient safety issues for years, and the administration has ignored it, leading us to this crisis, one nurse wrote.
I have received numerous “thank you for what you do” emails from administration, but no action to actually alleviate the increased stress, wrote another.
I want a union that will support us in our plea for adequate staffing. I want someone in my corner so that when a child cries out for help I can be in his/her corner!, wrote a third.
The day of the meeting, Jorgensen sent a lengthy email to the board’s chair and to the rest of the board’s 16 members. The message included links to 10 of the Facebook posts and a link to the hashtag’s Facebook page. Attached to the message were pictures of daily staffing reports documenting short-staffed shifts. Additional testimonial statements from eight nurses were attached as well.
Jorgensen said she has not heard back from anyone on the board about the message.
The campaign launches
The nurses’ campaign for union representation became public when a group of them converged on the December 2019 board of directors meeting of the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority (UWHCA), the governing entity for the health care system that is branded UW Health, asking for recognition of their affiliation with SEIU Healthcare.
In the months that followed the hospital system repeatedly spotlighted its “shared governance” programs — councils and committees that, UW Health stated after that December meeting, “have provided valuable feedback that has helped shape the decisions and direction of the organization, enabling us to provide remarkable healthcare to our patients.”
But nurses in the union organizing effort who had worked at UW Health when it was unionized earlier said they found the shared governance system ignored or had no time for their greatest concerns about staffing, employee retention and related problems.
In January 2020, after union supporters showed up at a second board meeting, UW Health CEO Alan Kaplan sent an email to the UW Health staff.
“Even with our ongoing efforts since this past spring, I didn’t understand the full extent of the stress and sense of underappreciation felt by many of our team members,” he wrote. “Many of you do not feel like your voices have been heard and that needs to change.”
A week later, on Jan. 29, 2020, UW Health’s chief legal officer signed a letter of engagement with Chessboard Consulting, a Chicago based firm that advises employers on how to prevent employees from unionizing.
UW Health provided a copy of Chessboard’s contract to SEIU this month in response to an open records request from the union in late October. The document states simply that Chessboard has been hired to assist UW Health’s chief legal officer, Kelly Wilson, “in developing a strategic communications plan.”
‘Attacks’ on employers
Chessboard’s website states the firm’s mission is “to improve employee relations and organizational performance by building trust, respect, and mutual understanding between leaders and employee groups.” It boasts of providing “customized solutions that deliver improved employee relations, increased employee engagement, higher productivity — and reduced vulnerability to union organizing.”
Chessboard has made a particular specialty of working with hospitals. The firm’s website makes clear Chessboard’s disdain for unions.
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“In recent years, labor unions that target healthcare employees have used ‘advocacy’ campaigns around issues like staffing and patient safety as the basis of their organizing efforts,” announces a page pitching training for “Healthcare Leadership.” The firm offers to help industry executives to “not only be prepared to fend off union attacks but also to speak on behalf of your organization and an industry under siege.”
UW Health redacted information about the firm’s pay rates before releasing the engagement letter. Business professor John Logan, who has researched the union-avoidance consulting industry’s finances, says rates can range from about $375 an hour to more than twice that if a consultant has a law degree.
In eight to 10 weeks, an intensive campaign could cost an employer “easily in the high hundreds of thousands of dollars, or it is more likely to be in the millions, in terms of direct payments to consultants,” said Logan, who is chair of the department of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University’s business school.
Union-avoidance consultants used to be known for holding mandatory presentations for employees where they painted unions in a negative light. Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, said it’s more common today for consultants to remain behind the scenes, coaching supervisors on what to do and say to discourage union support.
Federal labor laws forbid employers from threatening employees for supporting a union drive, interrogating them about their own or others’ support for unionizing, promising better conditions to employees for rejecting a union or conducting surveillance to identify union supporters.
Bronfenbrenner said that while consultants often go out of their way to warn employers against those tactics, “that’s signaling them to do those things, because that’s what works.”
Several nurses have said in interviews that they have been frustrated by the latest turn of events.
“Instead of using money to actually work with nurses and try to retain nurses, to improve nurse-to-patient ratios, they’re actually using taxpayer dollars to go against us,” Signer said. “It’s really created an us-versus-them feeling in the hospital, and it feels like there’s an all-out war between the administration and the hourly employees.”
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