UW Health nurses threaten strike over organizing effort

The health system countered that the strike could potentially harm patients.
The health system countered that the strike could potentially harm patients.
Published: Aug. 25, 2022 at 10:23 AM CDT|Updated: Aug. 25, 2022 at 1:11 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Nurses pushing for UW Health to accept their attempts to organize and join a union are threatening a three-day walkout next month. On Wednesday, they voted overwhelmingly to stage a strike three weeks from now if the health system’s board and administrators do not agree to begin negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement.

In a statement, organizers indicated “hundreds of nurses” backed the plan, with supporters claiming 99% of the vote. However, when asked how many of the health system’s 2,600 nurses who would be eligible to join the union – 1,500 of whom signed union cards – a spokesperson for the union effort refused to provide a more specific number. UW Health reports it has 3,400 nurses overall.

The strike would last from the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 13, through Friday, Sept. 16, organizers explained. They plan to offer ten days-notice to the hospital if they expect to go through with the strike, so administrators can prepare. Its statement did not detail if any or all of the nurses scheduled to work over those days would walk out or if only off-duty nurses would join the picket lines.

The nurses joining the union effort argue they have dealt with understaffing, exhaustion, and burnout for years, issues only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tami Burns, who has been a nurse at UW Health, says she has been PTSD and is not the only one.

“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,” she said. “Compounding this brutal experience has been the almost total lack of support and resources from the UW Health administration.”

Referring to her time in the military, Burns explained she feels this fight for a union is an extension of her service. She argued that, by organizing, nurses could help build their ranks at UW Health and make sure the ones on staff do not burnout, results that would allow them to improve patient care.

UW Health called the vote “disappointing” and accused the nurses of potentially taking a step that would harm patients, adding it “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.”

The health system reiterated its contention, which has been disputed by organizers and Attorney General Josh Kaul, that its hands are tied insofar as recognizing a union because state law prohibits it. If organizers want to have their union recognized, UW Health asserted, they will have to settle the matter in a courtroom.

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Another nurse who has also been at the hospital for five years, Colin Gillis echoed Burns sentiment. An agreement would allow them to be involved in decisions about patient care, she explained, contending that it is “executives in the boardroom” who make those calls now.

“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?” she continued. “I’m no longer willing to allow UW Health to put me in those impossible situations.”

The nurses previously were members of the SEIU, organizers noted, only to see their membership effectively nullified in 2014 when UW Health administrators would not consider a collective bargaining agreement, citing Act 10 restrictions. The prohibitions set forth by the controversial 2011 law that curtailed public employees’ collective bargaining powers in Wisconsin.

Organizers allege that, after the previous deal expired, the hospital cut staff, as well as health insurance and continuing education benefits. UW Health countered their assertions, arguing that its compensation packages are greater than most other hospitals in the area and that its turnover rate is lower than the national average. New hires, it continued, also put its vacancy rates below the nationwide rate.

In addition to its own lawyers, UW Health said the Wisconsin Legislative Council and Legislative Reference Bureau have backed its conclusion. In June, Attorney General Josh Kaul found that UW Health could enter voluntary negotiations with the union. Having dismissed Kaul’s determination regarding voluntary negotiations, the health system turned to another section of the attorney general’s statement where he said that the union could still go through traditional channels. UW Health’s statement predicted doing so would end up in court where they would get the “definitive answer.”

The SEIU states the nurses strike, should it happen, would be one of the largest by a group seeking representation in recent history.