A campaign launched more than two years ago by nurses who want union representation at UW Health is stepping up its call for public support and attention as the hospital system continues to reject collective bargaining.
On Thursday, several hundred nurses and their supporters set up an information picket line in front of the main hospital complex and UW clinics on the west side of Madison. Bundled up against 22-degree cold and a late afternoon snow shower, the group waved signs at passing cars. Many drivers honked their horns in support.
“Nurses can fix almost anything, and we’ve tried, but the looming issues and concerns that continue to surface at UW Health are beyond repair by nurses without a voice or union representation,” said Holly Hatcher, a nurse at the clinic. UW-Health and also a member of Dane County Council, addressing a rally for those on the picket line.
Nurses involved in the campaign say they want to restore the right to influence their working conditions and the policies and practices that affect patient care that UW Health employees had before losing their union rights eight years ago.
When then-Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican majority in the state legislature passed Bill 10 in 2011, stripping most state and local employees of most of their collective bargaining rights. The bill also eliminated language in state law that guaranteed union rights to UW Health workers. Hospital management ended union recognition and bargaining when employee contracts expired in 2014.
Andrea Romer worked at the Trauma Life Center of the UW hospital system for nearly 18 years, her entire career as a nurse. When she started, workers at UW Hospital were represented by unions.
“I felt supported,” Romer said. “I felt like we weren’t going to make decisions for us without us knowing.” The nurses knew that “you are going to have a voice,” she added. “And that just hasn’t been the case since 2014.”
After union contracts ended, UW Health reorganized how it manages its workforce and deployed personnel. “It was on target because we were really going to run efficiently,” Romer said. “We were going to make our workflow so efficient that we didn’t need as many nurses, which didn’t work. We need people.
Nurses who support the union say the focus on efficiency has made their jobs more stressful and hurt the quality of patient care. They say the changes have also led experienced nurses to quit.
As a new nurse, “the nurses who trained me were very experienced,” said Kelly O’Connor, a pediatric nurse who started at UW Health seven years ago. With the loss of experienced nurses, “new nurses were training new nurses”.
The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the problems, nurses say. Rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have put intense pressure on healthcare workers.
Romer said the Trauma Life Center where she works takes “the sickest patients in the area.” With the pandemic, it has also become a COVID Intensive Care Unit (ICU).
When hospital admissions rose even more dramatically in December 2021 and January 2022 due to the new omicron coronavirus variant, things “got ugly,” Romer said. “Not enough nurses, not enough staff.”
Some days it feels like total chaos in our clinics, and I fear patient safety is at risk.
– Holly Hatcher, UW Health Nurse and Dane County Board Member
Nurses said their pay and benefits have also deteriorated without a union contract.
Hatcher said UW Health employees, as well as state and local employees also covered by Bill 10, must begin contributing a percentage of their salary to their retirement plan, reducing their wages.
She works as a triage nurse, taking calls from patients at UW Health System clinics. She was able to work remotely, unlike hospital nurses. But understaffing is also affecting clinics, she said.
Addressing the gathering, Hatcher described her job as a clinical nurse. “Some days it feels like total chaos in our clinics, and I fear patient safety is at risk,” she told the crowd.
Hatcher recalled a recent backlog of 70 patient clinic calls and 100 online messages with “just a small handful of nurses” available to address their concerns. “Sometimes patients don’t hear from the nursing staff for three or four days, and they start calling and texting to try to get answers,” she told the rally.
Thursday’s picket line was held to coincide with a monthly meeting of the board of directors of the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority, the corporate entity that oversees UW hospitals and clinics, the official name of UW Health.
The nurses’ campaign focused on persuading the board to accept their demand for union representation.
“At UW Health, we encourage our nurses to raise their voices,” UW Health press officer Emily Kumlien said in a statement released Friday. “Hundreds of them do so through our shared nursing board governance system, driving the continuous improvement that has made us the No. 1 hospital in Wisconsin for ten consecutive years.”
Nurses seeking union representation said the shared governance system has not solved the issues most important to them, including staffing, workloads and their impact on patient care. “I’ve served on nursing boards,” Hatcher said at the rally. “They are not enough.”
UW Health management claimed that Bill 10 prohibits the UW Hospitals and Clinics Authority from recognizing or negotiating with unions.
“Although the law clearly states that we cannot recognize a union and collectively bargain a contract, we will continue to work directly with our nurses through our nursing councils to address workforce challenges and continue to improve the patient care we provide,” Kumlien said Friday.
Lawyers for SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, the union with which the pro-union nurses have joined, as well as a lawyer for the nonpartisan agency that advises the Wisconsin legislature, wrote memos concluding that there is no such a prohibition in state law, however. Bill 10, they say, does not prevent UW Health from recognizing the nurses’ union.
Romer believes that a union could make the system’s shared governance system more efficient. “Shared governance and the union are not exclusive,” she said. By including the union in the process, “it’s a space where we can really talk and implement the things that we all decide.”