Nurses seeking union at UW Health raise their campaign’s public profile

Hospital system management sticks to no-bargaining stance

By: - February 26, 2022 12:15 pm
UW nurses informational picket

Nurses seeking union representation and their supporters picket across the street from an entrance to the UW Hospital and Clinics complex on Madison’s west side Thursday, Feb. 24. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

A campaign that began more than two years ago by nurses who want union representation at UW Health is stepping up its appeal for public support and attention, while the hospital system continues to reject collective bargaining.

On Thursday, several hundred nurses and their supporters set up an informational picket line across the street from the main UW Hospital and Clinics complex on Madison’s west side. Bundled up against 22-degree cold and a snow shower in the late afternoon, the group waved signs at passing cars. Many drivers honked in support.

UW Health-children's hospital
American Family Children’s Hospital, part of the UW Health complex on Madison’s west side. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

“Nurses can fix almost anything, and we’ve tried, but the looming issues and concerns that continue to surface at UW Health are beyond repair by nurses without a voice and union representation,” said Holly Hatcher, a UW-Health clinic nurse and also a Dane County Board member, addressing a rally for those taking part in the picket line.

Nurses involved in the campaign say they want to restore the right to influence their working conditions along with policies and practices that affect patient care that UW Health employees had before they lost their union rights eight years ago.

When then-Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican majority in the state Legislature passed Act 10 in 2011, stripping most state and local employees of most of their collective bargaining rights, the bill also eliminated language in the state law that had guaranteed union rights for UW Health workers. The hospital’s management ended union recognition and bargaining when employees’ contracts expired in 2014.

Andrea Romer has worked in the UW Hospital system’s Trauma Life Center for almost 18 years, her entire career as a nurse. When she started, UW Hospital workers were represented by unions.

Pizza parties
A demonstrator expresses the dissatisfaction of nurses who feel UW Health’s response to their concerns has been inadequate. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

“I felt supported,” Romer said. “I felt like we weren’t going to be having decisions made for us without us knowing.” Nurses knew that “you’re going to have a voice,” she added. “And that just hasn’t been the case since 2014.”

After the union contracts ended, UW Health revamped how it manages its workforce and deployed staff. “It was framed as we were going to really run efficiently,” Romer said. “We were going to make our workflow so efficient that we didn’t need as many nurses — which hasn’t worked. We need people.”

Nurses who support the union say the emphasis on efficiency has made their work more stressful and affected the quality of patient care. They say the changes also led experienced nurses to quit.

As a new nurse, “the nurses that trained me were very senior,” said Kelly O’Connor, a pediatric nurse who started at UW Health seven years ago. With the loss of experienced nurses, “new nurses were training new nurses.”

The COVID-19 pandemic made problems worse, nurses say. Surges in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have put intense pressure on health care workers.

Romer said the Trauma Life Center where she works takes “the sickest patients in the region.” With the pandemic, it also became a COVID intensive care unit (ICU).

When hospital admissions surged even more dramatically in December 2021 and January 2022 due to the novel coronavirus variant omicron, things got “bad,” Romer said. “Not enough nurses, not enough staff.”

Some days it feels like utter chaos in our clinics, and I fear that patient safety could be at risk.

– Holly Hatcher, UW Health nurse and Dane County Board member

Nurses have said their compensation and benefits also have deteriorated without a union contract.

Hatcher said that UW Health employees, along with the state and local employees also covered by Act 10, had to start putting a percentage of their paychecks into their retirement plan, effectively cutting their salaries.

She works as a triage nurse, taking calls from patients of clinics in the UW Health system. She has been able to work remotely, unlike hospital nurses. But short staffing also affects the clinics, she said.

Addressing the rally, Hatcher described her work as a clinic nurse. “Some days it feels like utter chaos in our clinics, and I fear that patient safety could be at risk,” she told the crowd.

Pro-union billboard truck
A truck-mounted billboard displays the message of nurses who want union recognition at UW Health. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

Hatcher recalled a recent backlog of 70 clinic calls from patients and 100 online messages with “just a small handful of nurses” available to field their concerns. “Sometimes patients don’t hear back from nursing staff for three or four days, and they start calling and sending messages trying to get responses,” she told the rally.

Thursday’s picket line was held to coincide with a monthly meeting of the board of directors at the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority, the corporate entity that oversees the UW Hospitals and Clinics, UW Health’s formal name.

The nurses’ campaign has focused on persuading the board to accept their demand for union representation.

“At UW Health, we encourage our nurses to make their voices heard,” said Emily Kumlien, UW Health press secretary, in a statement released Friday. “Hundreds of them are doing that through our shared governance system of nursing councils, driving the continuous improvement that has made us the #1 hospital in Wisconsin ten straight years.”

Nurses seeking union representation have said the shared governance system has not addressed the issues most important to them, including staffing, workloads and how they affect patient care. “I’ve served on nursing councils,” Hatcher told the rally. “They’re not enough.”

UW Health management has asserted that Act 10 forbids the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority from recognizing or bargaining with unions.

“While the law is clear that we cannot recognize a union and collectively bargain a contract, we will continue working directly with our nurses through our nursing councils to address workforce challenges and continue improving the patient care we provide,” Kumlien stated Friday.

Lawyers for SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, the union that the pro-union nurses have affiliated with, as well as a lawyer for the nonpartisan agency that advises the Wisconsin Legislature, have written memos concluding there is no such ban in state law, however. Act 10, they say, does not prevent UW Health from recognizing the nurses’ union.

Romer believes that a union could make the system’s shared governance system more effective. “Shared governance and the union are not exclusive,” she said. By including the union in the process, “that’s a space where we can really talk about and implement the things we all decide.”

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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.