The Wisconsin Supreme Court issued an order on Feb. 2 to dismiss UW Health’s petition to determine whether they may voluntarily recognize the UW Nurses Union, a move that comes as a relief for nurses seeking collective bargaining rights.
In September 2022, UW Health nurses union, Service Employees International Union Healthcare Wisconsin (SEIU), reached an agreement with UW Health facilitated by Gov. Tony Evers to avert a three-day strike.
This agreement did not officially recognize the nurses union, instead outlining legal processes to determine if nurses could obtain full collective bargaining rights. The nurses and UW Health agreed to bring the issue before the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC), which ruled on Nov. 25 that UW Health does not have to acknowledge the nurses union or reach an arrangement with them.
The commission determined UW Health was not bound to the Wisconsin Peace Act, which prohibits employers from interfering with employees’ collective bargaining rights.
If UW Health was covered by the Peace Act, it would be required to bargain with the nurses union. But since the WERC ruled UW Health is not subject to the act, it is up to UW Health to determine whether they will broker a contract with the nurses union.
The nurses union and UW Health still have an appeal of the WERC case pending in the Dane County Circuit Court. The separate issue of whether UW Health can voluntarily recognize the nurses union is connected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court's Feb. 2 decision, meaning the case may now follow a slower process through lower courts, according to the Cap Times.
UW Health registered nurse Colin Gillis saw the court’s refusal to accept UW Health’s petition as a move in the right direction.
“The fact that the court ruled that we have to follow the normal process rather than what UW Health wanted, which was to go directly to the Supreme Court — that I see is a relief,” Gillis told The Daily Cardinal. “It means that it removes a clear and present danger to our union campaign for full recognition with collective bargaining.”
The court currently maintains a 5-4 conservative majority, but with an election around the corner, it could flip in liberals’ favor. UW Health had asked the Supreme Court for the ability to skip the lower courts and have the conservative majority rule on this case.
“We’re acutely aware of the fact that how the law is interpreted is a political question,” Gillis said.
Still, Gillis “absolutely” believes the process of recognition is moving forward. For the first time since 2014, he feels nurses have a voice at UW Health.
Gillis remarked that the nurses have “completely transformed” their relationship with the UW Health Administration since last summer. In August 2020, several nurses met with their CEO and Chief Nursing Executive and were told “that was the last time they would meet with us as union members,” he said.
The strike vote in September successfully accomplished what the nurses hoped for, which was to “bring [management] to the table,” Gillis said.
Nurses have been meeting as a union since then with top executives at UW Health to discuss staffing, wages and retention benefits, according to Gillis. They said nurses have had two of the largest raises since their last union contract ended in 2014.
“Now we regularly have interactions with the administration and have already made some, through our conversations, improvement to nurses' lives and working conditions and made, I think, our hospital system stronger and more effective,” Gillis said.
Additionally, nurses have a procedure called peer support that enables nurses to have the backing of their coworkers at disciplinary proceedings to ensure they receive fair treatment, according to Dave Bates, a spokesperson with SEIU Healthcare.
“Those reasons aren’t enough, but they are the biggest in almost a decade,” Bates said. “[It] goes a long way towards retaining experienced, qualified [and] dedicated nurses.”
Editor's note: This story was updated at 1:16 p.m. to make clarifications between the Supreme Court petition and WERC legal case, as well as clarifying Dave Bates' role with SEIU Healthcare.