UW Nurse Organizing For Better Working Conditions & Safer Patient Care

[Editor’s Note: The following is from the WDRT Monthly Review news round-up broadcast 2/7/20. — Ed.]

By Mark L. Taylor
WDRT / Commoner Call (2/7/20)

In last month’s review we mentioned the unionization effort by the nursing staff at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics. With as many as 2,000 in the ranks of the nursing staff, this unionization effort would be one of the largest unionization campaigns in the state, especially since former Gov. Scott Walker gutted public union organizing with the Koch Brothers-inspired Act 10, back in 2011.

As the Wisconsin Examiner noted in a recent update on the unionization effort: 

“The law that created the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority (UWHCA) in 1996, separating the hospital system from the University of Wisconsin, included language that assumed continued collective bargaining rights for hospital system employees. But Act 10 — in one sentence — ended collective bargaining for UWHCA employees once existing contracts expired.”

The unionization effort has been spurred on by decreased staffing, increased patient loads on remaining nursing staff, more burn out due to the workloads and increased staff turnover.

Emergency department nurse Kate Walston was quoted in the Examiner story noting: “We’ve had lots of staff leave. We’re all very proud to work at UW Hospital, [but] we’ve seen a lot of burnout. We’ve seen a lot of good, experienced nurses leaving.”

Nurses argue the growing pressures on the nursing staff can place vulnerable patients at risk.

For its part, UW Hospital and Clinic administrators note they have instituted a number of nursing councils to solicit input, concerns and recommendations from nursing staff, but those efforts are not enough, nurses warn.

Cardiac intensive care unit nurse Courtney Maurer chairs one of the nurses councils. “Our voices don’t go anywhere. Change does not happen. …We brainstorm ways that can help, but there are ears that aren’t listening.”

While acknowledging nurses have shared concerns, on January 23 the UW Hospital board declared they would not recognize a union. 

Officials of the Service Employees International Union-Health Care Wisconsin report that “ a substantial majority of nurses working for the UW Hospital system have signed cards authorizing the union to represent them. Because Act 10 eliminated collective bargaining at UW Health, the nurses and the union have instead asked for a voluntary recognition and an agreement to “meet and confer” over issues, and have specified that they are not proposing a formal collective bargaining agreement.”

Nurses have met individually with 6 of the 16 members of the hospital board to discuss their need for better representation and concerns of ‘just cause’ for firing of nurses.

The concerns raised by UW Hospital nursing staff are being heard at hospitals and other healthcare systems around the state. At a recent public hearing sponsored by SEIU, Outagamie County Executive Thomas Nelson said the UW nursing concerns are being echoed by healthcare workers and workers in general across the state. Nelson feels the UW Health organizing campaign “could catch fire around the state.”

With the widening income gaps and increased stress and insecurity on workers, labor unions are experiencing renewed popularity. While — as we have noted before — labor news gets scant coverage in mainstream corporate media, the WDRT 91.9 FM Monthly Review will continue to follow labor news in the state.