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A nurses' strike at UW Health was averted Monday when talks between the two sides resumed. The nurses (pictured protesting earlier this year) say burnout and unsafe staffing levels prompted the vote to strike. 

Nurses at the University of Wisconsin’s hospitals and clinics are our sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, neighbors and friends. They live in Madison and Middleton and Monona. They walk to work from the west side of town and bike over from the east side. They drive in from Jefferson and Lodi and New Glarus. They show up early and stay late. Their sense of duty is beyond question.

“The nurses at UW Health have dedicated their lives to providing compassionate care to our community,” explained Bill Franks and Lindsay Lemmer in a statement. Franks is the retired senior equal opportunity specialist with the state Department of Workforce Development and the longtime chair of the NAACP Dane County Labor and Industry Committee; Lemmer is a former Madison Common Council member and the current president of the Wisconsin chapter of the National Organization for Women.

“They are known for their professionalism and kind hearts," they wrote. "They are also known for the severe challenges and struggles they face. UW nurses have been making enormous sacrifices throughout the COVID pandemic. Every day, they have risked their lives and their families’ lives to do their jobs."

The recognition of the enormous contribution made by these nurses — and by the equally enormous challenges they have faced — is widely shared in Madison, Dane County and across Wisconsin.

So when the nurses expressed concern about conditions at the hospitals and clinics where they work, the community embraced their demand for union representation. And when the nurses signaled that they might strike this week, support for their struggle was overwhelming. That support, along with a timely intervention by Gov. Tony Evers, helped to avert the strike.

Evers got the two sides talking and they reached an agreement that will allow the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission to determine if UW Health and the nurses who work there are covered under the Wisconsin Employment Peace Act, which establishes protocols for workers to organize unions and to engage in collective bargaining.

This is a step in the right direction, which we hope will lead in short order to recognition of the nurses union.

This is the right and equitable course for the nurses and for their patients.

More than 1,500 nurses have already signed cards asking the UW Health board and administration to recognize the union of their choice, Service Employees International Union Wisconsin. To their credit, the nurses gave the UW Health board and administration ample time in which to recognize the union. Unfortunately, as Jessie Opoien of The Capital Times reported in June, the union's appeal was initially met with a convoluted response.

“UW Health administrators agree the health care system has been pushed to the brink and acknowledge the toll it’s taking on nurses,” wrote Opoien, “but they argue the 2011 state law known as Act 10 prevents unionization from being the answer.”

That interpretation of the anti-union law implemented at the direction of defeated former Gov. Scott Walker sparked controversy, and in March of this year Gov. Tony Evers asked Attorney General Josh Kaul for a legal opinion that would sort things out.

After months of review, Kaul determined that the UW Hospitals and Clinics Authority could voluntarily recognize a union formed by the UW Health nurses and engage in collective bargaining.

Kaul’s legal opinion affirmed an earlier interpretation of the law by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Council, which concluded that the authority could voluntarily recognize a nurses union and engage in discussions with it on issues such as wages, hours and working conditions.

Ultimately, Kaul's opinion has provided a pathway for resolving the dispute at UW. And Evers has gotten everyone on that path.

That's good news for the nurses, for the UW Health board, for the community and for patients from across Wisconsin and beyond it’s borders.

The hospitals and clinics associated with UW Health are world class. Doctors, nurses and other employees are the reason for that greatness. They should be respected. And the way to show that respect is by recognizing the union the nurses seek, and by engaging in collective bargaining that will resolve current challenges and make a great hospital even greater.

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