uw health nurses protest (copy) (copy)

Citing burnout and unsafe staffing levels, hundreds of UW Health nurses (shown here protesting earlier this year) voted to strike for three days in September if bosses don’t agree to recognize their union. 

Citing burnout and unsafe staffing levels, hundreds of UW Health nurses voted Wednesday to strike for three days in September if bosses don’t agree to recognize their union.

“Turnover and understaffing force us to make gut wrenching decisions: Do I stay with a patient who’s medically unstable, or do I leave to give medicine to someone in dire pain?” UW Health registered nurse Colin Gillis said in a press release, explaining that nurses were striking in order to get more say in hospital decision making. “I’m no longer willing to allow UW Health to put me in those impossible situations.”

The strike vote is 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. 

“I’ve cared for COVID patients throughout the pandemic, and my colleagues and I have seen more patient deaths than ever before in our careers,” said registered nurse Tami Burns, who’s been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “We’ve been suffering from extreme short staffing and cuts, and there’s a mass exodus of our talented nurses … UW nurses must have a union so that we can stay in this essential profession we love and continue to be there for our patients.”

The union did not provide details on the vote but said that “hundreds” of nurses voted to strike, with 99% approving the move. Unless management meets with nurses and their union and they jointly agree to a “fair and timely process” for union recognition, the strike will begin at 7 a.m. on Sept. 13 and end at 7 a.m. on Sept. 16.

If the nurses do plan to strike, they say they will provide official notice to the hospital at least 10 days in advance “so the administration can make preparations to ensure patient safety.”

UW Health claims it’s barred from recognizing union

According to SEIU, more than 1,500 of the roughly 2,600 eligible UW Health nurses have signed cards saying they want a union, but management continues to say it can’t legally recognize such a union. In June, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul issued a formal opinion on the matter, finding UW Health is allowed to collectively bargain. 

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.

In a statement released Thursday morning, UW Health called the strike decision “disappointing” and said it hopes the union reconsiders. 

“While UW Health can appreciate the idea of social activism, whether anyone supports or opposes recognizing a union to engage in collective bargaining is irrelevant until we determine whether one is legally allowed,” the statement said, noting that Kaul acknowledged that his opinion was not legally binding. “UW Health will not violate the law,” the statement said.

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.

The hospital said that its staffing ratios are “among the best in the nation” and its nurse turnover rate is “approximately half of the national average.” It’s hired more than 300 nurses, bringing its nurse vacancy rate “well below that of the majority of health systems.”

“No national advocacy campaign can take away the fact that UW Health is a great place to work with the highest quality care in Wisconsin.”

The hospital called on the union to “petition the state for recognition through traditional channels.” The strike, it said, would harm patients.

“As we approach their stated strike dates, our efforts will be focused on protecting our 700,000 patients from care disruptions and our 16,000 Madison-based providers and staff from threats and intimidation,” the statement said. “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.”

Meanwhile, the union accuses UW Health of launching “a toxic anti-union campaign” and threatening to fire nurses for their union activity, a move they say stresses nurses and in turn hurts patients.

Jessie Opoien contributed to this story.

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