Despite union’s setback, leader says UW Health nurses now have stronger voice

By: - November 29, 2022 6:40 am
Alan Kaplan - Colin Gillis - Tony Evers

From left, UW Health CEO Alan Kaplan, nurse and union activist Colin Gillis, and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers announce an agreement Sept. 12, 2022, averting a strike by nurses at the hospital system. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

While the nurses seeking union representation at UW Health have lost a round in the legal skirmish, a union leader said Monday they have  made significant advances in gaining a voice with the hospital system’s management.

Under an agreement reached in September between UW Health management and the nurses’ union, hospital managers and UW Health nurses have been holding “meet and discuss” sessions to talk about issues that sparked the union drive three years ago, according to UW Health nurse Colin Gillis, one of the union leaders.

“We are already pushing for improvements to working conditions at the hospital and safer conditions for the patients,” Gillis told the Wisconsin Examiner in an interview Monday. “I’m consistently impressed by how productive those conversations have been.”

The agreement to hold those talks was among the items in a memorandum of understanding that the hospital system management and the nurses’ union signed after Gov. Tony Evers brokered a deal that averted a threatened three-day walkout by nurses seeking union recognition at UW Health.

Under the agreement the union and UW Health also jointly petitioned the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) to resolve the question of whether or not current state law requires the hospital system to recognize or bargain with unions.

Their joint petition argued opposite sides of the issue. Lawyers for the union asserted that the hospital system should be considered an employer subject to the Wisconsin Employment Peace Act, which guarantees collective bargaining rights. Lawyers for UW Health contended that the 2011 law known as Act 10, which removed most state and local employees from the Peace Act’s protection, also eliminated that protection for UW Health employees.

On Friday, WERC issued its declaratory ruling, siding with UW Health.

“The Wisconsin Employment Peace Act … does not apply to the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority and its employees and their chosen representatives, if any,” the ruling concludes, signed by WERC Chair James J. Daley.

An employer? Or not an employer?

The Legislature enacted a law that took effect in 1997 separating the hospital system from the University of Wisconsin and putting it under the umbrella of the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority. That legislation included specific statutory changes that declared the hospital and clinics authority an “employer” subject to the 1939 Peace Act, preserving the established collective bargaining rights that the hospital system’s employees had when they were part of the university system.

Act 10, however, erased all of that statutory language relating to the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority as an employer under the Peace Act, the WERC ruling concludes. As a consequence, “The University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority is not an ‘employer’ within the meaning” of the Peace Act, the ruling states.

Both the union and UW Health said they will appeal the ruling.

“WERC’s decision is an important first step toward obtaining definitive answers from the Wisconsin legal system on both the question WERC addressed and whether UW Health could voluntarily recognize a union and bargain collectively,” UW Health press secretary Emily Kumlein said in a statement Friday.

The statement said the hospital system would petition the Wisconsin Supreme Court directly in its appeal.

A joint statement Friday from three nurses who are leaders in the UW Health union drive said that the nurses “respect WERC” but “do not agree with its opinion that UW Health nurses are excluded from the Employment Peace Act.”

Pointing to opinions from Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and the union’s own labor lawyers, they added, “UW Health clearly meets the definition of ‘employer’ under the Act and is therefore covered.”

The statement said the nurses would appeal the decision and also planned to petition for an election through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

“This is the first round in a multi-step process for nurses achieving collective bargaining rights, either through the courts, the NLRB, or through voluntary recognition by UW Health,” the nurses said.

‘Anything is on the table’

Gillis, who was one of the three nurses and union leaders who signed the statement, said Monday that the “meet and discuss” process had made it possible for nurses to engage with hospital system management on topics that they could not address under UW Health’s shared governance structure.

The hospital system’s administration has said the shared governance system, consisting of employee advisory councils and other programs, resulted in a collaborative workplace environment that made a union unnecessary. But nurses seeking union representation have said it wasn’t providing them with the voice they needed.

“I’m a leader in shared governance and I’m a leader in our union,” Gillis said Monday. “Shared governance is a really great way for nurses to have a say in some questions of hospital policy and to weigh in on changes that come along in health care. But shared governance has always been circumscribed in certain important ways.”

Under the system’s traditional shared governance structure, “We can’t really talk about compensation and competitive retention packages — the kind of material conditions that affect whether or not the hospital can recruit and retain a workforce,” Gillis said.

The “meet and discuss” process that came out of the September agreement doesn’t have those limits, he said.

“With meet and discuss, anything is on the table, and those material conditions are the focus,” he said. In the coming months, for example, compensation will be on the agenda. “That’s traditionally something that has been beyond the scope of shared governance.”

Gillis said that in his view, the broader talks between the union and UW Health management doesn’t take the place of shared governance but instead supplements that process.

The September memorandum of understanding provides for the meet and discuss sessions to continue “however long it takes” for the appeals of the WERC ruling to conclude, Gillis said, up until 2025. UW Nurses United, the name that UW Health nurses have given their chapter of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, also will have an opportunity to make a case to the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority board to continue the meet and discuss program when the current agreement expires, he said.

“I believe that meet and discuss is making concrete improvements to the conditions in the hospital, and for patients and staff alike, in ways that I think the board and the administration will support,” Gillis said.

He sees a broader story in UW Health’s union drive as well: “I really think our campaign is at the center of a revival of the labor movement.”

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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.