Hundreds of UW Health nurses voted to go on strike for safe, quality patient care and recognition of their union last month, according to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare Wisconsin.
The nurses are scheduled to go on strike from Sept. 13 to Sept. 16. However, if UW Health voluntarily recognizes their union and begins negotiating a contract the strike will not occur.
Problems with understaffing, turnover, cuts, exhaustion and burnout have been exacerbated by the pandemic over the last three years, the SEIU release states. Nurses are calling for a union voice to help solve these problems and advocate for themselves, their patients, families and communities.
“We went into nursing to take care of people and we just aren't given the tools to do that well,” said Mary Jorgenson, a UW Health nurse of 17 years. “Nurses on the floor are having to make really difficult decisions about taking care of which patients and when.”
Jorgenson has seen the effects of the pandemic exacerbate problems at the hospital. She was one of the hundreds of nurses who voted for the strike.
“The [nurses] who left weren't being replaced, so we were just doing more with less,” she told The Daily Cardinal.
Nurses stated that they would much rather work with UW Health to address the escalating crisis. However, the administration is not willing to collaborate.
“The UW Health administration and board have adamantly refused union recognition while conditions worsen, leaving nurses with no other option than to strike,” according to the SEIU press release.
UW Health began phasing out employee unions in 2014 but nurses have been trying to rebuild them since 2019.
Jorgenson explained cuts to benefits like sick and vacation pay, tuition reimbursement and continued education have contributed to worsened working conditions. Many left the field due to post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We want to be able to negotiate with the hospitals for better patient care,” Jorgenson emphasized. “And we want safe staffing. We don't want to be retaliated against because of all that.”
According to Jorgenson, the hospital also announced that they would give any nurse not on active discipline a 3.5% raise on Sept. 17 — the day after the end of the scheduled strike. All nurses who went on strike would be penalized, as the absence would be treated as a no-show at work.
Colin Gillis, a UW Health charge nurse of five years, explained to the Cardinal that disciplining nurses for striking is a violation of state and federal labor laws. Employees on active discipline are unable to receive raises, participate in shared governance bodies and receive warnings that can culminate in termination, according to Gillis.
“They just want to put pressure on us and try to scare us out of doing the right thing,” he said to the Cardinal.
Gillis explained how UW Health nurses are frequently left out of important hospital boardroom decisions, such as switching up mask protocols. The decision to ration N95 masks was made without the input of bedside nurses, something that would put their safety at risk. Ultimately, the cost to replace nurses was lower than to buy more N95s, Gillis said.
“[We weren’t] part of the tough call,” Gillis said. “I'm the one who has to enforce guidelines about protective equipment, so I really don't feel comfortable when nurses don't have a real voice in that decision making process.”
UW Health released a statement citing legal uncertainty on whether they can recognize and work with the union as a reason for not bargaining.
“At this time, the non-partisan Wisconsin Legislative Council and Legislative Reference Bureau as well as internal legal counsel and external legal counsel agree that the health system cannot legally collectively bargain under Wisconsin law,” the UW Health statement read.
Looking ahead, the September strike aims to bring attention to nurses’ demands to be included in decisions made at the upper level, and secure better worker’s rights. Gillis emphasized how having nurses more involved would be beneficial overall.
“I'm empathetic, and like most nurses, I'm motivated by a desire to make the world a better place,” he said.