The Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) ruled on Nov. 25 that UW Health hospital is not legally required to recognize or negotiate a contract with the recently created nurses union, UW Nurses United, or negotiate contracts.
The WERC’s ruling found UW Health was not subject to the Wisconsin Peace Act under Act 10, meaning it is up to UW Health to determine whether they will recognize and broker a contract with the nurses union.
Act 10, passed in 2011 under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, restricted most unions and collective bargaining rights for public workers and sparked months of protests upon its passing.
UW Nurses United and the UW hospital previously agreed in September to let the WERC judge the union's legality in exchange for no strikes and monthly meetings between nurses and the hospitals.
UW Health nurses Mary Jorgensen, Colin Gillis and Sarah Langland dissented from the WERC’s decision in a statement issued last week.
"The opinion by the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) does not impact our union membership or the Meet and Discuss process at UW Health,” the nurses said. “While we respect WERC, we do not agree with its opinion that UW Health nurses are excluded from the Employment Peace Act."
UW Nurses plan to appeal the commission's decision through state courts and petition for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board, according to their statement.
UW Health may be able to voluntarily recognize the nurses union even if they are not legally required to recognize it, according to a formal opinion released by Attorney General Josh Kaul in June. However, UW Health plans to petition the Wisconsin Supreme Court for legal clarity on the issue, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison) voiced her support for the nurses and expressed disappointment in the WERC’s decision in a statement Monday.
"While the decision by WERC is disappointing, it is not surprising,” Agard said. “More importantly, WERC's decision does not change the September agreement between nurses and the administration."
UW Health nurses, management, Gov. Tony Evers and Service Employees International Union Healthcare Wisconsin (SEIU) reached a historic agreement in September to jointly address UW nurses’ concerns and create a path towards quality patient care and nurse retention at UW hospitals.
While the agreement did not officially recognize the Nurses Union, it offered hope for better relations between the nurses and UW Health executives for the first time since a previous nurses union contract expired in 2014.
An estimated 2,600 nurses of UW Nurses United remained unified to find a collective bargaining solution despite last week’s legal setback.
"UW nurses are at the forefront of a national movement of working people – Black, brown, AAPI, white and indigenous – who are organizing across race, place and industry,” UW Nurses United said in a statement. “We are continuing to build our union and work collectively with the administration to ensure UW Health is the best place to work and receive care."
Zoe Kukla is a state news reporter, photographer and graphics artist for The Daily Cardinal. Follow her on Twitter at @ZoeKukla.