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UW Health nurses cannot legally obtain mandatory union recognition and require the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority to engage in collective bargaining, a state commission ruled last week.

UW Health nurses cannot legally obtain mandatory union recognition and require the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority to engage in collective bargaining, a state commission ruled Friday.

The decision from the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) comes about two months after the nurses called off a planned strike following an initial agreement between the two parties in the long-running dispute. 

What remains unresolved is whether UW Health can voluntarily recognize the union. UW Health will petition the state Supreme Court for an opinion on that question, a spokesperson said Friday.

“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,” said UW Health spokesperson Emily Kumlien. “We believe that an expedited decision on these important legal issues will best allow us to move forward.” 

Since 2019, nurses at UW Health have sought to form a union, with help from SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin. Their last union contract expired in 2014.  At that time, UW Health said Act 10, a 2011 state law which effectively eliminated collective bargaining rights for public employees, barred it from negotiating a new contract with the union. Nurses have countered that hospital management, as an independent body rather than a government, could voluntarily recognize and bargain with their union.

Nurses’ unionization efforts have come as cost-cutting measures have led to concerns about understaffing, overwhelming patient loads and high staff turnover rates. Nurses say those changes not only take a toll on nurses but also put patients at risk — and the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated those issues. UW Health administrators agree there’s a problem, but have said Act 10 prevents unionization from being the answer.

The agreement reached in September — brokered by Gov. Tony Evers, who supports nurses’ unionization effort — stopped short of recognizing the union, instead laying out the steps that UW Health would follow to get an authoritative answer to the legal questions of whether they are required to collectively bargain with the union and whether they can voluntarily do so even if not required.

As part of the agreement, UW Health and SEIU petitioned WERC to determine whether the hospital is covered by the Wisconsin Employment Peace Act, a portion of the chapter of state law that governs collective bargaining. If UW Health were covered by the Peace Act, it would be required to bargain with the nurses’ union.

WERC determined in its Friday ruling that the Peace Act does not apply to UW Health.

In a joint statement, UW Health registered nurses Mary Jorgensen, Colin Gillis and Sarah Langland said they respect WERC but disagree with its opinion. 

“We will be appealing WERC’s decision through the courts and petitioning for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB),” they said. “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 noted that Attorney General Josh Kaul issued a non-binding opinion in June concluding that the UW Hospitals and Clinics Authority may voluntarily recognize their union and engage in collective bargaining. Throughout the dispute, UW Health management and nurses have offered competing legal analyses to back up their positions on the issue.

The nurses also said WERC’s decision will not impede their unionization efforts.

“The groundbreaking agreement that nurses won in September empowers us with a union voice, and through a ‘Meet and Discuss’ process we are currently working on urgent improvements in patient care, staffing and retention,” the nurses said. “Hundreds of us have already signed up to become union members and we are meeting directly with the administration to raise critical issues and create real solutions.”

Cap Times reporter Natalie Yahr contributed to this story.

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