Wisconsin Nurses Set to Strike, As Employer Claims It's Banned from Bargaining
Nurses at UW Health in Madison, Wisconsin, will strike for three days next week. The strike comes in response to the hospital administration's continuing refusal to recognize the nurses’ union and growing frustration over compensation issues and deteriorating working conditions.
The dispute goes back to modifications of state laws enacted in 2011, generally known as Act 10. Then-Republican Governor Scott Walker and Republican legislative majorities passed this anti-union law in the face of massive public protests, including a prolonged occupation of the State Capitol.
Developed by the pro-corporate right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the changes greatly restricted collective bargaining in Wisconsin’s public sector. For example, public worker unions are now banned from bargaining over benefits and working conditions and limited to bargaining wage increases only up to the official inflation rate. (Some unions, particularly among teachers, have found room to maneuver around this restriction through extensive meetings and consultations with employers, including over employer-issued handbooks spelling out policies and procedures.) Act 10 also requires annual recertification elections, bars paycheck union dues deductions, and imposes substantial health insurance and pension costs on public workers, reducing take-home pay by an average of about 8 percent.
In addition, the law removed the enabling language that included public sector higher education and UW hospital workers.
Act 10 accomplished its main goal: weakening Wisconsin public worker unions and organized labor throughout the state. It was followed a few years later by right-to-work legislation that banned union security agreements in the state’s private sector. As a result, unions have faced a hostile environment in the state.
CAN THEY BARGAIN?
Before Act 10, UW Health nurses were represented by Service Employees Healthcare Wisconsin (SEIU). Once their contract expired with the UW Hospitals and Clinics Authority in 2014, management took the position that Act 10 prohibited its nurses from engaging in collective bargaining. It has continued to maintain that position—all while, according to the union, implementing “dozens of harmful cuts, including to nurses’ staffing levels, health insurance, and continuing education benefits, resulting in severe difficulties with recruitment and retention.”
Like many other Wisconsin public workers, the nurses have been reorganizing and rebuilding their union ever since. Last year SEIU claimed that a majority of the approximately 2,600 nurses had signed union authorization cards and offered to document that to UW Health through a card check process overseen by a neutral party. (The union now says over 1,500 nurses have signed cards.) But in a December 2021 letter to employees, CEO Alan Kaplan stated that “no further action can be taken until current state laws are changed.”
State leaders disagree with this position. In an 11-page written opinion issued in June, Attorney General Josh Kraul wrote: “it is within the Authority’s statutory power to voluntarily engage in collective bargaining.” And Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers has called on UW Health management to recognize the union and negotiate a fair agreement.
‘A LONG LIST OF MAJOR CUTS’
UW nurses say their union campaign and upcoming strike are motivated by deteriorating working conditions and the loss of opportunities for advancement and better compensation. Add to that the stress and real danger nurses have experienced during the pandemic, and it is not hard to understand their point of view. Veteran RN Shari Signer explained the situation on the union website:
Ten years ago, the administration promised they would take care of us and that we didn’t need a union. Well, I have compiled a long list of major cuts since then that have negatively impacted nurses and public health. The staffing ratios of nurses to patients have worsened, continuing education has been dramatically cut, new nurse training hours have been lowered and incentives to retain experienced nurses eliminated. Our health insurance costs have increased and paid sick time has been reduced. The best way to make UW focused on patients and staff again is through having a strong independent union voice.
The strike is planned to start on the morning of September 13, lasting until the morning of September 16.
“I’m striking so nurses at the bedside are involved in decision making about how we deliver patient care, not just executives in the boardroom,” said Colin Gillis, an RN with five years experience at UW. “Turnover and understaffing force us to make gut wrenching decisions: do I stay with a patient who is medically unstable, or do I leave to give medicine to someone in dire pain? I’m no longer willing to allow UW Health to put me in those impossible situations.”
Public worker strikes in Wisconsin are not unheard of, but since Act 10 they have been rare. This strike comes amid some favorable shifts in conditions for unions: the pandemic has increased the visibility of and public support for essential workers—nurses foremost among them. And public support for unions has also increased over the past decade, jumping from 52 percent in 2011 to 71 percent this year.
Nevertheless, this strike raises several questions in the near and longer term. Can the nurses preserve and expand their solidarity? Can an announced three-day strike win union recognition or will an employer this recalcitrant simply hold out and wait for the strike to blow over? If that happens, how will UW nurses proceed?
Longer-term questions have both state-wide and national implications. How can laws like Wisconsin’s Act 10 and right-to-work laws be overturned? How can organized labor continue revitalizing in an era of growing labor activity? The UW nurses' struggle is an important test of labor's strength and its ability to keep pushing forward in these new times.
David Nack is an emeritus professor and Michael Childers is a professor at the University of Wisconsin School for Workers.