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3 Questions: UW Health Nurses Celebrate Agreement That Could Return Union Recognition

Analysis  |  By Carol Davis  
   September 14, 2022

Longtime UW Health nurse says working without a union has been 'disheartening.'

With a three-day strike averted, University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority (UWHCA/UW Health) nurses are celebrating an agreement that could finally recognize their union.

UW Health management also welcomed the agreement announced Tuesday in which both sides agreed to seek a ruling from the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission on whether the health system must recognize their union.

This is all positive news, and we are excited to be moving forward together to gain legal clarity,” said a statement from UW Health.

Hundreds of nurses threatened a strike this week unless UW Health recognized and bargained with the nurses’ union, which is part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Administrators, however, maintained that the hospital couldn’t legally collectively bargain under the state’s Act 10 legislation, which passed 11 years ago, removing UW Health from being required to recognize unions.

Gov. Tony Evers brought both parties together over the weekend at his residence to mediate and reach an agreement stating that UW Health and the nurses’ union, SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, “intend to work together to address critical challenges and issues facing the nursing profession at UWHCA.”

Sarah Quinn, RN, an inpatient psychiatry nurse at UW Health for 13 years who has been active on hospital councils and resource groups, was among the celebrants and spoke with HealthLeaders about this development.

1. You’ve worked at UW Health both with and without union representation. What has the experience been like in each circumstance?

Sarah Quinn: I started here under a union, and it felt like nurses and management were really working together on everything … like what was a concern to us was going to be heard. I had a strong voice in my workplace and that gave me a sense of being invested, and it made me feel like more than just someone working for an organization; it made me feel like I was really, really part of it.

When we lost the union, I’m optimistic by nature, and I wanted to feel like we were going to move forward with management in the same way, but over the years, it's become clear that that's just not the case. We’ve tried to work within the systems we have, like through our councils, but when you don't have a voice and can't talk directly to people, it's been very different and disheartening

2. UW Health had maintained that the health system couldn’t legally collectively bargain under Wisconsin law, so is the fight against the health system or the state of Wisconsin?

Quinn: It was with our health system of UW Health. Because we had a clear opinion from [Wisconsin attorney general] Josh Kaul, as well as many attorneys across the country, and so have always believed that the hospital could voluntarily recognize us. Part of this process was that the hospital has believed that wasn't the case. So, it has been more with the hospital, not the state.

3. If union representation returns for UW Health nurses, what changes and goals do you and other nurses anticipate?

Quinn: The fact that we're able to join a union immediately, that we're going to be sitting down to talk with management, mediate, and discuss, which we did not have before this. The problems of how we're retaining nurses, how we're lowering burnout, making sure that we have the resources we need to care for our patients, caring for us to make sure that this is a profession we can stay in long term—I know that nurses at that table are going to be able to help make those changes in the hospital that's going to allow all that to happen.

“When we lost the union, I’m optimistic by nature, and I wanted to feel like we were going to move forward with management in the same way, but over the years, it's become clear that that's just not the case.”

Carol Davis is the Nursing Editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

Photo credit: Ken Wolter / Shutterstock.com


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