UW Health nurses strike averted on eve of walkout

The three-day strike was set to start Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 7 a.m.
Neither would say if either side made other concessions regarding compensation, benefits, scheduling issues, etc., to reach an agreement
Published: Sep. 12, 2022 at 10:21 AM CDT|Updated: Sep. 12, 2022 at 7:21 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - As the countdown to a nurses strike at UW Health switched from days to hours, both sides confirmed a last-minute arrangement means potentially striking staff will show up at work rather than the picket line on Tuesday morning.

When announcing the agreement, leaders on both sides focused solely on the foundational disagreement between organizers and health system administrators: whether or not the UW Health can even recognize the union. Under the new plan, the issue will be decided by the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission.

During a news conference, health system administrators and a representative for the nurses, who were joined by Gov. Tony Evers, stayed laser focused on that portion of the deal. Neither would say if either side made other concessions regarding compensation, benefits, scheduling issues, etc., to reach an agreement. NBC15 News reached out to spokespeople for UW Health and the union backing the nurses’ effort, SEIU, about additional points in the agreement.

UW Health responded with a follow-up statement, laying out what it considers the key points in the arrangement. 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.

While the agreement calls for a verdict from the WERC, the health system pointed out explicitly that either side can take that ruling to court “to pursue further clarification” and can even take their case directly to the state Supreme Court to settle the matter. To obtain the promise of not striking, UW Health administrators assured organizers they would negotiate in good faith if the dispute ends up in the courtroom.

None of the key points addressed any changes to the issues cited by the nurses as reasons for wanting to form a union. 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.

“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,” nurse Amanda Klinge said after the results of the vote were announced. “This is not how our healthcare system should be run, and we refuse to accept this as the ‘new normal.’”

In their statements, the nurses and UW Health credited Gov. Tony Evers with bringing them to bargaining table. Evers hosted Monday’s new conference in the Governor’s Conference Room and led the event by describing how he invited them to the Executive Mansion on two occasions during which they were able to decide to let the state agency weigh in on the issue.

Any decision is expected to take months.

Gov. Tony Evers announces UW Health and members of its nursing staff have reached an agreement...
Gov. Tony Evers announces UW Health and members of its nursing staff have reached an agreement to avoid a looming three-day strike.(WMTV/Camberyn Kelley)

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.

UW Health, which described the latest escalation as “unfortunate,” indicated last week that its administrators were taking steps to ensure enough nurses, doctors, and staff would be on hand to keep UW Hospital’s emergency room open during the protest. Between those eligible and not eligible to join the union, UW Health told NBC15 News it has 3,400 nurses on staff.

Chief Nurse Executive Rudy Jackson described the potential strikers as only “a small group of our nursing workforce” but went on to indicate the number was significant enough to prompt them to review staffing capabilities and enlist recruiters to bring in enough people to support its nurses.

“As is the case at all times, our focus is entirely upon our patients and ensuring that we can meet their healthcare needs, whether that is a clinic appointment, a virtual visit, a trip to the ED or a scheduled surgery,” UW Health said on Friday. UW Health refused to say what will happen with the nurses it enlisted to help during the strike and the schedule changed it made among its own staff now that the strike has been shelved.

UW Health contends its hands are tied by the controversial 2011 law that curtailed public employees’ collective bargaining powers in Wisconsin. In a clash of opinions, 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.

Meanwhile, SEIU argues the hospital would not violate the law by voluntarily recognizing a nurses’ union and pointed to an opinion released over the summer that supports that stance.

State officials will decide if UW Health would have to recognize the effort, and if it determines the health system does not, they will move on to if administrators could voluntarily do so.