UW Health nurses to warn their strike is coming

UW Health East Madison Hospital
UW Health East Madison Hospital(UW Health)
Published: Sep. 1, 2022 at 12:28 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Nurses at UW Health will hit the picket lines in less than two weeks, they plan to warn health system administrators. On Friday, they will deliver their ten-day notice that a planned three-day strike will begin on Tuesday, Sept. 13, according to a statement released on the eve of the announcement.

The effort is designed to pressure UW Health into recognizing the union the participating nurses want to organize and begin the collective bargaining process. They argue a union will offer better conditions for the nurses and increase the quality of patient care.

“When my nurse colleagues and I see potentially preventable patient care problems occur day after day because of extreme understaffing, it is damaging to our psyche and our very soul,” Amanda Klinge said, echoing the organizers stance.

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.

“This is not how our healthcare system should be run, and we refuse to accept this as the ‘new normal,’” she continued.

Organizers indicated they planned to offer the ten-day warning on Aug. 25 when they announced an overwhelming vote to authorize a strike. Ninety-nine percent of nurses who participated in the vote backed the plan, a statement at the time reported. A spokesperson for the union would not say how many nurses cast a ballot, only that the total was in the hundreds.

Approximately 1,500 of 2,600 nurses eligible to join the union have signed cards supporting the drive, organizers claim. UW Health currently employs 3,400 nurses, according to the health system’s count.

The 72-hour strike is set to run from 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 13, through 7 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 16, organizers explained. While the warning came Thursday, and the notice will be delivered on Friday, they plan to host a Labor Day news conference on Monday to discuss the strike.

UW Health called the announcement “unfortunate” and previously accused the nurses of potentially taking a step that would harm patients.

“UW Health has been informed that Friday, Sept. 2, a group of nurses plan to formally announce a strike starting at 7 a.m. Sept. 13 until 7 a.m. Sept. 16,” UW Health press secretary Emily Kumlien said. “This is unfortunate given that a strike will do nothing to alter the legal uncertainties surrounding the health system’s ability to collectively bargain. Since the original announcement of the planned strike, UW Health is focused on the continued safety and quality care for all patients, ensuring patient care is impacted as minimally as possible.”

UW Health also referred people to its previous statement.

After releasing its statement Thursday, a different spokesperson for the union effort replied to NBC15 News again used the ‘hundreds’ figure when asked how many nurses would join the picket lines but did not respond to a question about whether any of them would have been scheduled to work over the three-day strike and be walking out.

The health system countered that the strike could potentially harm 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.

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.