UW Health nurses vote to strike if union not recognized

Nurses at University of Wisconsin Health in Madison have voted to strike in September if their union is not recognized.

The nurses voted overwhelmingly Aug. 24 to strike, while still allowing more time for the UW Health board and administration to agree to negotiate and recognize their union, Service Employees International Union Wisconsin, according to an SEIU news release shared with Becker's.   

Nurses are prepared to strike from 7 a.m. Sept. 13 to 7 a.m. Sept. 16. However, they will provide an official notice to UW Health at least 10 days in advance of a strike should one occur.

"We're striking to put an end to the vicious cycle of understaffing and burnout and to win a union voice so we can protect the health of our patients and each other," Tami Burns, RN, who has worked at UW Health since 2017, said in the union release. "I became a nurse because I believe deeply in helping people. Previously I served in the military, and I see nursing — and the fight for our union — as a continuation of my service to my community and my country."

At issue is nurses' quest for union recognition to address their concerns regarding staffing, turnover, cuts, exhaustion and burnout.

Nurses lost their SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin representation in 2014 when their last contract expired. UW Health did not negotiate a new contract with the union, citing Wisconsin Act 10, state legislation enacted in 2011 relating to collective bargaining for public employees and other matters. Under Act 10, the health system 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 Hospital and Clinic Authority to voluntarily recognize the union so they once again have 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 a statement shared with Becker's, UW Health addressed the union representation issue, and defended its staffing and workplace practices.

"UW Health has been ranked the highest quality hospital in Wisconsin for 11 consecutive years. Our compensation, particularly for nurses, is among the best in the region. Our staffing ratios are among the best in the nation. Our nursing turnover rate is approximately half of the national average, and after hiring more than 300 new nurses our vacancy rate is well below that of the majority of health systems. No national advocacy campaign can take away the fact that UW Health is a great place to work with the highest quality care in Wisconsin," the health system said. 

Regarding union representation, the health system said as it stands now, the Wisconsin Legislative Council and Legislative Reference Bureau, as well as internal legal counsel and external legal counsel agree that UW Health cannot legally collectively bargain under Wisconsin law, due to Act 10.

Wisconsin Attorney General Joshua Kaul said in June that it "appears that the Peace Act includes the authority to voluntarily engage in collective bargaining in its coverage based on the statute's plain text. Assuming that the authority is not covered by the Peace Act, I conclude that it is within the authority's statutory power to voluntarily engage in collective bargaining."

However, the attorney general's opinion "is not law, and … only the courts or the legislature can provide a conclusive answer. UW Health will not violate the law," the health system said. The health system's statement also noted the attorney general suggested the union could petition the state for recognition. "Taking that route would avoid a strike and move us closer to getting a definitive answer from the courts on whether UW Health can legally recognize and bargain with a union," the statement said. 

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