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With a potential strike of hundreds of UW Health nurses looming, Attorney General Josh Kaul said Wednesday that he is hopeful hospital management will recognize the health care workers’ union. Above, Kaul speaks to supporters during a campaign event in Milwaukee on Aug. 10.

With a potential strike of hundreds of UW Health nurses looming, Attorney General Josh Kaul said Wednesday he is hopeful hospital management will recognize the health care workers’ union.

Kaul, who spoke to reporters after participating in a public safety roundtable with several law enforcement leaders, said he is “fully supportive of any workers who are able to unionize doing so.”

“So I do hope that that union is recognized,” he continued. “It's critical. Not only because it's the fair thing to do for employees, but also because union labor does outstanding work around the state. Whether it's nurses or construction workers … having unionized labor makes the quality of the work that's being done stronger.”

The nod of support from Kaul comes two weeks after the nurses voted to strike, which was the latest development in a years-long push for union recognition by the nurses of UW Health University Hospital, American Family Children's Hospital, East Madison Hospital and Madison-area clinics. 

Those nurses were previously unionized through SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, but their last contract expired in 2014. At that time, the UW Hospitals and Clinics Authority (UWHCA) 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. The nurses, meanwhile, call that an “excuse,” contending that management has the authority to voluntarily recognize their union regardless. 

For three years, UW Health nurses have been working to resurrect their union as cost-cutting measures have made them increasingly concerned about understaffing, overwhelming patient loads and high staff turnover rates. They say those changes not only take a toll on nurses but also put patients at risk. COVID-19 has only exacerbated those issues, leading to a crisis, nurses say. 

The union did not provide details on the vote but last month said that “hundreds” of nurses voted to strike. The strike will begin at 7 a.m. on Sept. 13 and end at 7 a.m. on Sept. 16 unless a deal is reached.

More than 1,500 of the roughly 2,600 eligible UW Health nurses have signed cards saying they want a union, according to SEIU, but management continues to say it can’t legally recognize such a union.

Others, including Kaul, disagree.

The Democratic attorney general in June issued a formal opinion stating UW Health is allowed to collectively bargain. Under Wisconsin law, the attorney general is required to issue an opinion on legal questions submitted by the Legislature and by certain state government officials. Courts are not required to follow those opinions, but they often do.

Kaul’s opinion aligned with the findings of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Council, which concluded in an October 2021 memo that while management has no legal duty to recognize an employee union under Act 10, it may do so voluntarily. In that case, UWHCA could allow the union to participate in discussions on wages, hours and working conditions.

If the strike does occur, the nurses said they would provide management proper notice “so the administration can make preparations to ensure patient safety.”

Capitol Bureau Chief Jessie Opoien and reporter Natalie Yahr contributed to this report.

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