Union backers celebrate deal to avoid UW Health nurses’ strike

The announcement of the planned celebration also provided a first look at the wins union organizers are claiming following Monday’s deal.
Published: Sep. 13, 2022 at 4:15 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - On the day they originally intended to launch a three-day strike, supporters of the effort to organize UW Health nurses into a union will instead host an event to celebrate the last-minute compromise plan that prevented the walkout.

“This is a major step forward for nurses and our patients,” UW Health nurse Colin Gillis explained. “This agreement is a testament to the strength and determination that nurses bring to everything we do. Now we have the opportunity to meet at the table, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.”

The announcement of the planned celebration, which included Gillis’ comments, also provided a first look at the wins union organizers are claiming following Monday’s deal. While all the full details have not been disclosed, the SEIU, which is trying to organize the nurses, highlighted six points that the union says makes this a “groundbreaking agreement for a union voice.”

During their joint announcement on Monday, both sides focused almost exclusively on the single point of the agreement: that the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission will settle the matter of whether UW Health can, by law, recognize the nurses’ union. However, while both sides agreed to let the state agency decide the issue, the deal allows either party to take the matter to court afterwards, which is where UW Health has repeatedly said it will need to be decided.

In Tuesday’s invitation, the SEIU indicated it can begin enlisting UW Health nurses immediately and that UW Health administrators acknowledge the nurses’ right to organize themselves and participate in union-related activities. Despite not agreeing to recognizing the union, and by extension its collective bargaining powers, union supporters say health system administrators agreed to come to the table in what the SEIU called “a union-management process” to discuss the nurses’ concerns.

Throughout the standoff, organizers have argued the nursing staff has dealt with understaffing, exhaustion, and burnout for years, issues only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. They contend a union would help them win better working conditions and increase the quality of patient care.

“This historic agreement ensures we have a strong union voice on the job,” nurse Mary Jorgensen said. “I am so excited about the opportunity before us and I’m confident in our ability to work together in a new, more powerful way.”

According to SEIU, management and the nurses looking to organize have pledged to build a “relationship rooted in mutual respect and civility,” and UW Health administrators agreed to collaborate with nurses on creating new disciplinary rules that included a “peer support” process.

UW Health released its own itemized list of key takeaways from the new arrangement on Monday afternoon. The five-point, bulleted list twice pointed out organizers agreed not to strike while the dispute over whether a union can be recognized is completely resolved. Not only have the nurses agreed not to walk off the job during the WERC process, they pledged to keep working through any subsequent legal action, UW Health stated.

The health system’s list also pointed to sitting down with union representatives during the process but described the meetings as non-binding and meant “to facilitate the open sharing of information.”

None of the key points listed by either side appeared to mitigate directly the issues cited by nurses as reasons for wanting to form a union outside of agreeing to meet to discuss the matters. A union spokesperson confirmed that the recent agreement does not touch specifically on those items, and the pact stayed focused on the matter of representation and UW Health agreeing to meet with representatives for the nurses.

Any decision by the WERC is expected to take months. That timeline could stretch much longer should the issue end up in the courts, although UW Health did note that either side could petition the Wisconsin Supreme Court directly to see if the justices would agree to hear the case.

Neither would say if either side made other concessions regarding compensation, benefits, scheduling issues, etc., to reach an agreement

When it comes to recognizing any union, UW Health contends its hands are tied by the then-controversial 2011 law that curtailed public employees’ collective bargaining powers in Wisconsin. The health system claims its internal counsel determined recognizing the union would violate Act 10 and claimed the Wisconsin Legislative Council and Legislative Reference Bureau have backed its conclusion. UW Health has stated, if organizers want to have their union recognized, the matter would have needed to be settled in a courtroom.

While the Legislative Council finding did determine that UW Health was not forced to recognize a union for collective bargaining purposes, it did leave the door open for organizers voluntarily recognition. Attorney General Josh Kaul went further in his opinion, as union backers have pointed out, saying that UW Health can voluntarily recognize them.

The multi-day walkout loomed ever since hundreds of nurses voted overwhelmingly on Aug. 25 to approve the action. A spokesperson for the union refused to say how many of the 2,600 nurses eligible to join the union actually voted to strike. The union also did not reveal how many of them would walk out during the strike.

In all, UW Health says they employ 3,400 total nurses.