UW Health nurses fight for union amid growing workforce challenges

UW Health nurses met with CEO Dr. Alan Kaplan to show their support for creating a union.
UW Health nurses met with CEO Dr. Alan Kaplan to show their support for creating a union.(Dave Bates)
Published: Jan. 13, 2022 at 5:33 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Scores of UW Health nurses went to meet with the system’s CEO Thursday to show their support for creating a union amid growing workforce challenges, which the health system has argued cannot occur without a change in state law.

The group presented 1,500 cards to Dr. Alan Kaplan, signed by nurses indicating their solidarity in creating a union. Dozens of nurses also stood outside the meeting with signs, which showed messages in favor of the union.

An UW Health spokesperson noted while the group claimed to have 1,500 signatures, they did not leave any with leadership. The health system is unsure how many of those signatures are from the 3,400 nurses currently working there.

Nurses described during the meeting the concerns they have, saying there is a “crisis at UW Health.” They claim UW Health executives have implemented a series of harmful cuts over the years, including in staffing, health insurance and education. The group also states the pandemic has enhanced these issues and contributed to exhaustion felt by nurses. Around 2,600 nurses would be included in the union if it was created, the group noted.

Kelly O’Connor, a registered nurse in the pediatric unit who has worked at UW Health for seven years and attended the meeting, explained that she is advocating for a union for the community and children she cares for.

“It’s become particularly difficult to do my job because the families we care for are under increased emotional, physical, and financial stress related to the pandemic,” O’Connor said. “Families need our attention now more than ever but with the staffing and retention crisis, it’s difficult to give the care they need.”.

Dr. Kaplan sent a message out to all staff on Dec. 21, 2021 addressing the union and the workforce challenges they have faced during the pandemic.

“While the current challenges seem daunting, I know that we will overcome them, emerging stronger and better than before,” Kaplan wrote. “This will require diligence, tough decisions, and most of all working as a team that contributes our collective abilities around our core mission, constantly improving, and remaining focused on the positive changes we can make to our work environment and the care we provide.”

Kaplan further maintained that the enactment of Act 10 in 2011 eliminated UW Health’s ability to recognize and bargain with a union on behalf of its employees.

“While we believe that working directly with and empowering our staff in the workplace is important and can lead to real improvements, a union will not be part of that effort,” said Kaplan. “Barring a change to state law, UW Health cannot legally recognize and bargain with a union on behalf of our employees. We did not come to this conclusion lightly.”

The nurses countered that the Wisconsin Legislative Council, a nonpartisan government agency, reviewed applicable law and concluded that the health system can voluntarily recognize the nurses’ union and begin negotiating for a contract.

The group released these findings from the council, “2011 Act 10 simply deleted the obligation and duty for UWHCA to engage in collective bargaining with its employees, and did not replace the former duty with language prohibiting collective bargaining... [E]mployees may seek...voluntary recognition by UWHCA.”

Kaplan also said UW Health had reviewed existing case law, consulted with its legal counsel and an outside council who is an expert in labor law. Through a review of all of these factors, UW Health says it cannot take action until current state laws change.

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