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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. 

UW Health nurses saw Madison, Dane County and Wisconsin through the worst of the coronavirus pandemic and — with nurses at other local hospitals and clinics — they continue to be in the forefront of efforts to respond to the lingering threat posed by COVID-19. They are the ultimate essential workers.

But like so many essential workers, local nurses have not been given the support they need and deserve.

So UW nurses have over the past several years been organizing a union, with the support of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin. That’s an understandable and appropriate move for the nurses and for Wisconsin. Union representation in health care settings, especially hospitals, assures that the voices of the frontline workers are heard and respected. Through the collective bargaining process, nurses are able to develop standards for hospitals in which they work and can guarantee that quality patient care is prioritized. Once a contract is bargained and approved, nurses then have a platform from which to advocate for patients.

Clearly, that sort of advocacy is needed at UW Health.

The hospital system remains one of the best in the country. But it has, like other systems, struggled to keep ahead of the COVID crisis. That’s not surprising. But it is a circumstance that needs to be addressed. UW Health nurses say they're being forced to deal with dangerous levels of understaffing in hospital wards, that they are experiencing exhaustion and burnout. That’s leading to a great deal of turnover, which is just making things worse.

The nurses I've talked with are realistic. They know a union won’t solve all the problems in a health care system in which the right to health care is often upended by managers who are often too concerned with hefty CEO salaries and returns on investments. The United States needs a single-payer “Medicare for All” system that takes the profiteering out of health care to guarantee quality care for everyone. But in the absence of that humane and necessary reform, we have to recognize — as do the nurses at UW Health — that a strong union can restore a measure of balance that is now missing.

“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,” says Tami Burns, a registered nurse who has worked at UW Hospital since 2017. “Compounding this brutal experience has been the almost total lack of support and resources from the UW Health administration. We’ve been suffering from extreme short staffing and cuts, and there’s a mass exodus of our talented nurses. Many of the nurses who’ve left have been medically diagnosed with PTSD, including myself. 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.”

Unfortunately, UW Health administration and its board have refused to recognize the union, despite the fact that Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul determined in June that “it is within the (UW Hospitals and Clinics) Authority’s statutory power to voluntarily engage in collective bargaining.” Though the circumstance is somewhat complicated by the anti-union climate created by defeated former Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 law and related pieces of legislation, serious observers of labor relations believe Kaul’s conclusion is sufficient to clear the way for union recognition and bargaining.

“Day after day, nurses care for us and our loved ones, and go above and beyond the call of duty to provide for some of our most vulnerable," says state Sen. Melissa Agard, a Madison Democrat who has a long history of working on labor issues at the county and state levels of government. "As one of the largest employers and healthcare providers in the state, UW Health has a moral responsibility to be a leader in setting the highest standards for care, jobs, and workers’ rights. It is absolutely unacceptable that they are refusing to recognize the nurses’ union and threatening them with retaliation for their union activity. Like other workers in Wisconsin, UW nurses are protected by state employment laws providing them with the legal right to engage in concerted activity, including the right to strike, free of retaliation. Providing UW Health nurses with a union voice in the workplace will create a more collaborative, safe, and respectful work environment that will improve the lives of both nurses and patients.”

Agard’s correct. Nurses have a right to take action to demand union recognition and a fair contract. That includes a right to strike, and UW Health nurses have voted overwhelmingly to launch a job action from 7 a.m. on Sept. 13 through 7 a.m. on Sept. 16.

There is still hope that the strike will not be necessary. The way to avoid it is for UW Health administrators and the members of the authority's board to accept the logic of Kaul’s legal assessment and begin bargaining in good faith. If they refuse to do so, the administration and the board will force the nurses to press the issue on behalf of patient care and safety.

We can no longer ignore the reality that Colin Gillis, a nurse at the hospital for five years, describes: “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? I’m no longer willing to allow UW Health to put me in those impossible situations.”

The solution, says Gillis, is to assure that “nurses at the bedside are involved in decision making about how we deliver patient care, not just executives in the boardroom.”

That's the commonsense equation that should be embraced by the UW Health administration and the UW Hospitals and Clinics Authority Board.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@captimes.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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