For over two years, nurses at UW Hospital have been attempting to unionize to better protect their jobs and improve their working conditions, however, they have been met with continued hostility and union-busting tactics from the hospital’s administration.

UW nurses’ frustration with UW Health has grown due to erratic scheduling, understaffing and worsened working conditions. While the pandemic exacerbated many of these problems, unionization efforts began before COVID-19 overwhelmed hospital capacities.

Nurses unionization demands prior to the pandemic already warranted action, and with increased stress on healthcare workers due to the pandemic, UW nurses deserve the right to unionize in order to better care for themselves and the patients they serve.

The strain the pandemic has put on hospitals and the healthcare system takes an individual — and often overlooked — toll on the health care workers. Cutbacks on staffing levels, health insurance and education benefits have increased the burden these nurses face. A culmination of overwhelming conditions have led to a feeling of defeat, burnout and even post-traumatic stress disorder among many nurses.

UW nurse Courtney Younkle expressed concern with the current workplace dynamics in an interview with The Badger Herald in February.

“It’s definitely been really frustrating and stressful and you feel like the people that you work with just aren’t listening to you and they’re profiting off of your sacrifices,” Younkle said.

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The National Labor Relations Act signed in 1935 grants the right to unionize for all U.S. workers. But employers have since found many loopholes to this law, rendering it difficult to enforce.

Collective bargaining rights for most public employees in Wisconsin have also been severely weakened since former Gov. Scott Walker signed the right-to-work laws through Act 10. Union membership in Wisconsin has steeply declined by 5.5% since Act 10 became law in 2011, with only 8.7% of public employees being members of unions as of 2020.

Unions play a crucial role in the fight for workers’ rights in the U.S., but union-busting remains commonplace in large companies and corporations that know they are better off when their employees lack the collective bargaining power of a union.

UW Hospital received its own special status in 1996 when it became a public authority separate from the university. The legal debate over how Act 10 now affects these employees remains tense.

UW Health nurses already signed over 1,500 cards in favor of union recognition that were presented to the UW Health administration in January. If formed, the nurses’ union would total 2,600 members.

But UW Health CEO Dr. Alan Kaplan claimed in a letter to UW Health employees that state law prevents the hospital from recognizing the formation of a nurses’ union.

“I am asking and hoping that those passionate about a nurse union fully commit to our team efforts,” Kaplan said.

Rhetoric of teamwork and camaraderie in the workplace is a common union-busting technique to make employees feel as though they are failing as a team member if they want to unionize.

Kaplan’s claims that his hands are tied come from findings of a Legislative Council memo commissioned by Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison, in May of 2021, which state that “[UW Hospital and Clinics Authority] employees do not have a right to negotiate on subjects of collective bargaining,” but that a “meet and consult” relationship between nurses and UWHCA is legal.

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Despite this, a December legal analysis from the Service Employees International Union Healthcare Wisconsin directly contradicted these findings, arguing “Act 10 did not affirmatively prohibit UWHCA from engaging in collective bargaining with its employees.”

If UWHCA truly thought Act 10 prevented them from collective bargaining with nurses, they would not be running an anti-union campaign at the hospital to scare nurses out of unionizing.

UW Health needs to stop hiding behind the interpretation of Act 10 that best suits them and allow their nurses the right to unionize. Unionization would allow the nurses to negotiate salary, scheduling, time off and working conditions.

The SEIU argued in a press release the hospital can afford to meet nurses’ demands on many of these issues, considering the UW Health system’s 162% profit increase in 2021.

The hospital has attempted other union-busting techniques as well. Nurses say they have seen some improvements in hospital conditions, but none of them substantial enough to make a lasting impact. This is referred to as the “wait and see” method, which refers to an employer making minimal changes to a workplace to satisfy employees until talk of union organizing dies down. Afterward, conditions typically return to normal.

The Madison City Council Alderpersons Lindsay Lemmer and Patrick Heck also wrote in a press release UW Health is currently contracting with Axley Brynelson, LLP and Chessboard Consulting. With the help of these two anti-union consultants, the hospital has escalated fear tactics against nurses.

According to the press release, these methods include one-on-one meetings with nurses and security guards threatening nurses with arrest for informing their colleagues about unions. Though it is illegal in the U.S. to fire a worker for trying to unionize, UW nurses still fear unfair punishment for unionization attempts.

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These fear tactics only further emphasize the need for a nurses’ union at UW Hospital. A union would benefit UW hospital by ensuring that nurses avoid burnout and can perform their jobs to the best of their abilities. Unionization also has the potential to lead to less staff turnover and better patient health outcomes.

“If you’re short-staffed, the patients are still there … People don’t get the top level of care that they deserve,” UW Health employee Delia Pertzborn said to the The Capital Times. “We are having to triage what is the most important thing to do for people.”

It is time for the UWHCA to stop making excuses and acknowledge the nurses’ right to have a voice in their workplace. With tensions continuing to rise between UW nurses and UWHCA, it is crucial to support the fight for workers’ rights and hold UW Health accountable for their anti-union campaign.

We have spent two years relying on nurses’ labor to get us through the pandemic and calling nurses essential — it is time to treat them like it.

Leah Terry ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in political science and communication arts and pursuing a certificate in public policy.