Evers endorses UW Health nurses’ union campaign

Health system says bargaining is out of the question, but governor meets with nurses to show support

By: - January 7, 2022 7:00 am

Gov. Tony Evers addresses nurses supporting union rights at the state Capitol in May 2021. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

Nurses who want union representation at UW Hospital and Clinics amped up their campaign this week, meeting online with Gov. Tony Evers as the governor reiterated his support for their cause.

The COVID-19 pandemic “has really underscored how critical your roles are in keeping our state healthy,” Evers told several hundred UW Health nurses and some of their allies who took part in a Zoom meeting with the governor Wednesday evening. “But it also illustrated how necessary it is for essential workers to be represented in their workplace. Workers, especially our nurses who have sacrificed so much, deserve the opportunity to organize and have a say in the workplace.”

The one-hour meeting was the latest in a series of events over the last seven months organized by nurses who have been prodding the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority (UWHCA) board and administration to recognize their union and negotiate a contract.

“We need a union because we need a real voice,” said Mary Jorgensen, a 17-year employee and operating room nurse at UW-Health and one of the leaders of the online forum. “We have to be involved in policy changes. We’re the ones with the medical expertise, who can ensure that our patients’ needs come before profits and executive pay.”

The event was also a prelude to the next move by nurses involved in the union drive. Next week, the organizers will deliver to the hospital system’s CEO and board authorization cards signed by “a strong majority” of UW Health nurses in support of a union, said Adam Green, a general surgery nurse and another leader who spoke during the Zoom session. Green said more than 1,500 nurses have signed the cards, indicating that they want to be represented by SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Wednesday evening included testimonial statements from a half-dozen nurses declaring their reasons for demanding a union contract.

Some of the nurses were long-time employees hired when the UW Hospital system had long-standing union representation and an obligation under state law to honor collective bargaining relationships. Those labor gains were lost as a consequence of Act 10, the 2011 legislation Gov. Scott Walker introduced and signed stripping most public employees’ union rights, and the last UW Health contracts expired in 2014.

“We must have collective representation so that UW Health is once again an organization where nurses are valued, protected and empowered,” said Jill Starkweather, a 30-year nurse who has worked for UW Health for half of her career.

“Since they ended our union contract in 2014, nurses’ compensation has been almost stagnant, earned sick time has been decreased, benefits continue to dwindle and we’re not given any real avenue to advocate for ourselves and our patients,” Starkweather said. “In response, there continues to be a mass exodus of nurses from UW Health. The nurses who have stayed are now working in conditions and an environment that leaves us exhausted and defeated.”

Shared governance complaints

When nurses have contracted COVID-19, they have not been presumed to have been infected on the job. As a result, they must “use our own paid time off if we fall ill with COVID,” said Amanda Klinge, who has worked for five years in an orthopedic trauma unit. “Many nurses who have been infected use up their time off and have nothing left to care for the well-being of themselves, their children and their loved ones. We’ve also faced staff reductions for the past several years without effective input from nurses.”

Their remarks were interspersed with comments and questions from Evers, who recalled his own participation in the local teachers’ union when he taught school before his career path led him to the Department of Public Instruction and ultimately to the governor’s office.

Several nurses singled out the health system’s “shared governance” programs, which UW Health has highlighted in statements that have asserted it already offers nurses and other health care workers an opportunity to be heard in the workplace. Evers asked for details about why nurses were unhappy with the shared governance process.

Jack Trudell, a recovery room nurse and a member of a scheduling committee in the department, described the challenge as an influx of COVID-19 patients has reduced the number of rooms available for patients being admitted for outpatient surgery. On a recent occasion, he said, people were arriving for scheduled operations but there were no admittance beds for them.

“We were basically told that … if there’s nowhere to put these patients, whoever was on call was going to have to come in and stay all night with those patients in the recovery room — and then work the next morning,” Trudell said.

That was “a decision we universally disagreed with,” while under the shared governance system the team was simply required to accept it and “make it more palatable,” he explained. “It puts a nice face on the fact that somebody else is making a decision that really affects your life and your patient care.”

Outspoken union supporter

As governor, Evers has consistently supported organized labor in general and the nurses’ union in particular. He tweeted support in March for the UnityPoint-Meriter union nurses as negotiations were within one day of a strike deadline, and he was among the featured political speakers at a rally in May backing unions for nurses and other health care workers.

His proposals in the 2021-23 state budget to roll back Act 10’s restrictions on union rights for public employees and to repeal the state’s so-called Right to Work law were stripped by the Republican majority on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.

In deciding to engage so directly with the union organizing campaign, Evers has stepped out beyond his Democratic predecessors — but he’s also responding to a different political environment that is itself a product of Act 10.

Alexis Walker
Alexis Walker, St Martin’s University

“There is both a growing recognition in the Democratic Party that the revival of organized labor is important for the power of the party, and this labor activism is putting pressure on Democratic politicians to be more proactive in their support of labor,” says Alexis Walker, a labor historian at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Wash., who conducted interviews in Wisconsin and closely followed the events surrounding Act 10 when writing a book on the differences in bargaining and political strategies between public- and private-sector unions.

She compared Evers’ response to that of President Joe Biden, “the most labor-friendly president we have had in decades,” who has been open in his support through appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, his sympathy with striking workers and in other ways. “Evers’ actions are mirroring what is happening at the national level.”

With a higher level of popularity for unions, and particularly for nurses and health care workers, his support is also less politically risky than it might have been in the past, Walker says.

Act 10 standoff

Still, the nurses continue to face a challenge in the UW Health administration’s assertion that Act 10 forbids any interaction with unions.

The union has been pushing back on that assertion, and Jorgensen told the Zoom audience that both a private labor lawyer (who represents the union) and a Wisconsin Legislative Council attorney who wrote an October memo concluded “that UW Health can voluntarily recognize our union voice.”

On Dec. 21, UW Health CEO Alan Kaplan sent an email message to all employees shutting the door on union recognition and citing legal advice from its own lawyers as well as earlier Legislative Council and Legislative Reference Bureau memos ruling out collective bargaining for the health care system.

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As for the union lawyer’s memo that found no evidence that state law would forbid a voluntary agreement, “Nothing in that opinion changes our analysis…” Kaplan’s email stated, adding that “it is clear that no further action can be taken until current state laws are changed.”

The union activists are not taking that “no” for an answer. Andrea Romer, a UW Health nurse for 17 years now working in a COVID intensive care unit, made that clear in her last question of the hour.

“We are determined to have that voice, and there’s no stopping us,” Romer told Evers. “And we’re really hoping that you can use your moral leadership and act as a facilitator for us nurses and for the administration to come together and solve the crisis that’s happening now at UW Health… We really need you to support us as we continue to take action and to call on the board to recognize our union voice. My question is, Will you stand with us? Will you be there for us?”

Ever reiterated his backing — and appeared to take up the challenge.

I firmly believe that you can be the best advocates for yourselves and your patients when you have a union voice of actual power in the decision-making process, while you’re also having an opportunity to hold each other and management accountable,” he said. “I think the union has a significant role to play in that.”

Then he added: “I’ve stood with you before, I’ll do everything I can to encourage all stakeholders to come together” — and recognize the union.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and 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.

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