UW Health nurses vote for 3-day walkout in September to gain union rights

Plan for strike comes after years of being rebuffed by hospital system management

By: - August 26, 2022 7:00 am

UW Health nurses seeking representation prepare to speak at a September 2021 news conference with Madison city council members. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

A Wednesday night vote by hundreds of nurses working for UW Health to strike if the hospital system’s management does not recognize their union followed months of conversations, meetings and strategizing among more than 2,000 nurses employed by the largest health care provider in Madison.

Nurses involved in the campaign say that the decision to pursue a job action became increasingly inevitable in the face of the administration’s refusal to respond to their reasons for seeking union representation.

Those reasons include concerns about staffing ratios, the impact of lean hospital staffing on patients and their safety, and a system of councils to get feedback from employees that nurses say ignores the most critical issues.

“They put all these good words into shared governance and having conversations” with employees, nurse Amelia Zepnick said Thursday. Instead, she said, administrators take actions that directly affect patients as well as the people who care for them “without involving the bedside team.”

A former social worker who became a UW Health nurse three years ago after training for her new career, Zepnick said she and her coworkers have high expectations of themselves and of the care they want to provide.

“There’s got to be something we can do to make this better,” she said. Decisions that have disregarded objections made by nurses and other employees “led to this feeling or urgency — like, somebody’s going to get hurt.”

Over the course of three Zoom meetings attended by hundreds of UW Health nurses Wednesday evening, 99% of the participants voted to stage a three-day walkout in September to underscore their demand for hospital system leaders to voluntarily recognize and bargain with their union.

The walkout would begin Sept. 13 and end Sept. 17. It would follow a 10-day notice to the administration, required under federal labor law. Union organizers have said they would continue to appeal to UW Health management to reverse its stance.

In a statement Thursday, UW Health called the strike vote “disappointing” and said the hospital system’s ability to recognize the union was a matter of legal dispute.

Launched in 2019

More than 1,500 of a group of 2,600 nurses employed by UW Health — officially the UW Hospital and Clinics — have signed cards in support of being represented by SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), according to the union.

A UW Health spokesperson said Friday that the health system has 3,400 “frontline nurses” and another 800 in management roles. The union has said it believes 2,600 nurses would be included in a prospective bargaining unit. 

The union organizing drive has been underway since 2019 and is the largest in Wisconsin in recent memory. While the union campaign began before the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses say the pandemic worsened conditions that led them to seek union representation.

UW Health management has refused to consider recognizing the union, maintaining that was forbidden under state law — an interpretation that has since been rejected by outside legal analysts.

Shari Signer, one of the nurses active in leading the organizing drive, said Thursday that the prospect of a job action has lingered from early in the effort.

“We have known since we started this that there was a good possibility we could end up striking,” Signer said.

But with public support as well as support from Gov. Tony Evers and a favorable legal opinion from Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, Signer said, “we were hoping that the hospital administration and the board would have actually sit down and listen to some of these people who say, ‘Hey, there’s a problem —a majority of nurses are standing up and saying, there’s something wrong in this hospital, and we need help fixing it.’”

The union drive’s latest chapter opened with Kaul’s legal opinion, issued in June. Kaul concluded that state law does not bar UW Health from engaging with unions. His opinion concurred with two previous legal analyses.

“It was the first time in a very long time that we received good news,” said UW Health nurse Mary Jorgensen, another leader in the union organizing campaign.

Act 10 ambiguity

Collective bargaining rights for UW Health employees were enshrined in Wisconsin law when the hospital system was separated from the University of Wisconsin in 1995, coming under a new corporate entity: The UW Hospital and Clinics Authority.

Until mid-2021, a prevailing assumption was that Act 10, the 2011 law enacted under then-Gov. Scott Walker and stripping most public employees of most of their union rights, blocked collective bargaining entirely for employees of the hospital system.

Act 10 deleted the language guaranteeing union rights for UW Health employees. When existing union contracts expired in 2014, the health system’s leaders refused to negotiate new ones, asserting that Act 10 barred them from doing so.

Starting last year, however, three successive memos — the first from a lawyer for SEIU, the second from the non-partisan Wisconsin Legislative Council and the third from Kaul — all concluded that there is no such prohibition.

Act 10, Kaul acknowledged in his attorney general’s opinion, did limit collective bargaining for state as well as municipal employees to wages only.

But those restrictions don’t apply to the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority, Kaul wrote, because it is neither a state employer nor a municipal employer. And he found no language in the law limiting collective bargaining in the health system. “The Authority has broad powers to contract with its employees and set their terms of employment, and it could choose to do so via a voluntary collective bargaining process,” he wrote.

In a statement Thursday, UW Health stuck to its position that “the health system cannot legally collectively bargain under Wisconsin law, due to the Act 10 legislation passed in 2011.” Noting that Kaul’s opinion differed, the statement added that “only the courts of the legislature can provide a conclusive answer.”

The statement said UW Health is following the advice of its legal staff as well as outside legal consultants. It also cited older memos from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau and the Legislative Council that stated that Act 10 prevents collective bargaining by the hospital system.

Those memos, however, preceded the recent Legislative Council memo that  concluded otherwise. The UW Health statement makes no reference to the more recent memo.

‘Digging in their heels’

The assertions in Thursday’s statement were similar to messages that nurses received from the hospital system CEO Alan Kaplan after Kaul issued his opinion in June.

“We were dumbfounded that they were digging their heels in the ground, and they still are trying to hide behind the Act 10 law,” Jorgensen said Thursday. With that response, “a lot more nurses got really upset.”

In the weeks that followed, the prospect of some kind of job action became an increasingly open secret in the hospital system.

“We just knew, they’re never going to lie down and just recognize us,” Jorgensen said.

The Dane County NAACP sent messages to UW Health in June and again on Aug. 13 supporting the nurses. NAACP President Greg Jones criticized the administration for not meeting with Kaul to discuss his legal opinion and for not recognizing the union.  

On Friday, Aug. 19, a letter signed by about 250 nurses went to Kaplan that directly announced the prospect of a strike and urged that UW Health recognize the union as a means to work with the nurses on issues of staffing, retention and quality of care.  

The following Tuesday, Aug. 23, the UW Health human resources office announced in an email a 3.5% across-the-board raise. A footnote listed among those who would be ineligible “employees on active discipline.” The same day, according to nurses, the health system’s chief nursing officer, Rudy Jackson, announced that nurses on strike will be subject to discipline as absentees failing to call in or show up for work.

“It felt really insulting and retaliatory,” said Zepnick. Union activists wondered whether either the promised raise or the threat of discipline for strikers would dampen what they saw as increasing support. Instead, “it actually infuriated the staff,” Signer said — sparking a mass gathering of nurses who confronted the chief nursing executive on Wednesday morning.

That evening, the nurses held their Zoom meetings to vote on a walkout and confirm the dates. Demand to attend was so high, Jorgensen said, that instead of the usual two-meeting schedule — one at 5 p.m. and one at 8 p.m. — the nurses had to schedule a third session between the other two.

Now both the nurses and the hospital administration are waiting.

This strike will be unpleasant for patients and for our staff, but we will get through it and never lose sight of our shared mission to meet the needs of our patients,” concluded UW Health’s statement.

Jorgensen and her nursing coworkers readily acknowledge their apprehension about what’s ahead.

“Everybody gets scared and nervous,” Jorgensen said. “But some of us feel more strongly that nothing will ever change, unless we’re recognized as a union there.”

Update: This story was updated Friday, 8/26/2022 with additional information from UW Health on the number of nurses on its staff.

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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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