UW Health not required to recognize union, board rules

The Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission has issued an opinion that the University of Wisconsin Health in Madison is not required to recognize the nurses' union and collectively bargain a contract under state law.

The ruling, issued Nov. 25 and shared with Becker's, is in response to an agreement reached in September between UW Health, nurses and Service Employees International Union Healthcare Wisconsin.

As part of the agreement, the union agreed to cancel a planned September strike and refrain from any further strikes until the end of a regulatory/legal process to review whether UW Health is covered by the Wisconsin Peace Act and can collectively bargain with SEIU, according to a statement shared with Becker's. In exchange, UW Health agreed to engage in a good faith, non-binding "meet and discuss" process with the union while any court proceedings regarding the collective bargaining issue are pending. 

The statement also said the union and UW Health would jointly petition the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission for a ruling on whether the Wisconsin Employment Peace Act applies to the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinic Authority.

Under Act 10, UW Health was removed from the Wisconsin Employment Peace Act, which required it to recognize and negotiate with employee unions, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Nurses have advocated in recent years for the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority to voluntarily recognize the union so they may regain representation. According to the union, more than 1,500 nurses have signed cards saying they want union representation, and the union size would be about 2,600. UW Health has 3,400 nurses total.

In its Nov. 25 decision, the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission said the Wisconsin Employment Peace Act provisions in question do not apply to the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority and its employees and their chosen representatives, if any.

UW Health shared a statement with Becker's calling the decision "an important first step toward obtaining definitive answers from the Wisconsin legal system on both the question WERC addressed and whether UW Health could voluntarily recognize a union and bargain collectively."

The statement continued, "We believe that an expedited decision on these important legal issues will best allow us to move forward, which is why we are petitioning the Wisconsin Supreme Court for an opinion on these questions.

"We want to thank WERC for their diligent review."

UW Health registered nurses Mary Jorgensen, Colin Gillis and Sarah Langland also shared a statement with Becker's saying nurses will appeal the WERC decision.

"The groundbreaking agreement that nurses won in September empowers us with a union voice, and through a 'meet and discuss' process we are currently working on urgent improvements in patient care, staffing and retention," the statement reads. "Hundreds of us have already signed up to become union members and we are meeting directly with the administration to raise critical issues and create real solutions."

The statement also said the WERC opinion "does not impact our union membership or the 'meet and discuss' process at UW Health. While we respect WERC, we do not agree with its opinion that UW Health nurses are excluded from the Employment Peace Act. As the Wisconsin attorney general and labor law experts have asserted, UW Health clearly meets the definition of 'employer' under [state law] and is therefore covered. We will be appealing WERC's decision through the courts and petitioning for an election with the National Labor Relations Board. This is the first round in a multistep process for nurses achieving collective bargaining rights, either through the courts, the NLRB or through voluntary recognition by UW Health. UW nurses are at the forefront of a national movement of working people — Black, brown, AAPI, white and indigenous — who are organizing across race, place and industry for unions for all workers, no exceptions. We are continuing to build our union and work collectively with the administration to ensure UW Health is the best place to work and receive care."

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