MADISON, Wisc. — Singing “Solidarity forever / Our union makes us strong,” nearly 250 community supporters joined elected officials at the monthly University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority (UWHCA) Board of Directors meeting, ramping up pressure on the Board to recognize the UW nurses’ union. Clergy and labor leaders, who were given just 15 minutes on the Board’s agenda to state their case, addressed the room first.
After 15 minutes, the Board entered into a closed session and then released a statement claiming, “it is in the best interests of UWHCA, its patients and employees, for UWHCA management to continue to work directly with employees to understand their concerns and to work together towards solutions”.
“Rather than engage in a meaningful dialogue about the legality of the nurses’ demands or respond to our questions, for a second time the UWHCA Board chose to release a statement that again ignores and dismisses the nurses and the public”, said Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, executive director of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice. “Nurses are on the front lines in patient care. When they tell us that their working conditions are jeopardizing patient care, we have no choice but to listen and respond. So, we will be back at the next Board meeting and as long as it takes for the Board to do what is moral and right”.
In January, the nurses union at UW Health shared a legally-vetted memo with the UWHCA Board of Directors reiterating their demands that the Board recognize their union, direct the hospital and clinics administration (UW Health) to enter into a meet-and-confer process, and restore the just-cause standard and Weingarten rights for all. The Board simultaneously released a statement falsely citing Act 10 (which prohibits collective bargaining but not voluntary recognition) as the reason it would not bring nurses to the table.
“We have seen destructive consequences of Act 10 all across our state and our economy. The UW Hospital board has an opportunity to right this wrong, do right by the patients and their families and the nurses who provide the front-line care and voluntarily recognize the Nurses union,” said Yogesh Chawla, Dane County Board Supervisor for District 6 on the near east side of Madison. “The entire community supports the nurses and we will soon see other government bodies join the Dane County Board and vociferously come in support of the nurses as well.”
Many nurses noticed a shift in working conditions and culture since a corporate consultant implemented a profit-driven model in the hospital. Subsequently, many UW nurses have quit, compounding an existing shortage. Facing suboptimal staffing levels that potentially threaten patient safety, compromised worker governance, and fear of retaliation for speaking up on behalf of themselves and their patients, nurses announced in December that a union was the solution to provide top-quality care to the Madison community and beyond.
“This is the community hospital. As a public institution that receives taxpayer dollars, this hospital and its board are accountable to the public,” said Kevin Gundlach, president of the South Central Federation of Labor. “We expect them to fulfill their duties and their commitment to the community, who are taxpayers and patients, and listen to us. Today, we are united in saying that the Board needs to recognize the nurses union.”
Leaders from local labor groups, NAACP chapter, faith community, and other community members joined Representative Melissa Sargent and Dane County Supervisor Yogesh Chawla to speak in support of UW’s professional nurses.
“UW Health nurses have formed a union because it is our duty to advocate fiercely and fearlessly for our patients, and fighting for our union is the best way we know how to do that,” said Kate Walton, a UW nurse organizing for their union. “We know from the outpouring of support today, and in the past few weeks and months, that the community is with us. We will continue to advocate for them and for ourselves as long as it takes.”
Professional nurses at UW Health are first and foremost demanding a union to address existential problems in the hospital system; but they are also inspiring the community to forge a new path in the wake of Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-worker administration.
“To our nurses I can only say, solidarity today, solidarity tomorrow and solidarity forever,” said Bill Franks, executive board of the NAACP of Dane County. “The nurses’ union is a small step in securing civil and economic rights to an unheralded profession that plays a significant role in the healthcare industry. We stand with our nurses.”
Madison nurses’ demand for the citywide table comes amid a surge in strikes and organizing by workers in the Midwest and across the economy including tech, fast-food, food service and hospitality, healthcare, airports, security and beyond. Nearly half (48 percent) of all nonunion workers in the U.S. now say they would join a union if they could — a four-decade high — according to a recent survey by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Workers’ renewed push for unions comes as a response to what many see as rigged political and economic systems. Workers are demanding Unions for All as a solution to win higher pay, strengthen communities, amplify workers’ voices in politics and ensure a better future for all.
Public support for unions has hit record high in recent years. The most recent Gallup poll in Aug. 2018 found public support for unions at 61 percent – the highest rate in 15 years – including 80 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Independents. As public support for unions has grown, worker militancy on the job has surged: In 2018, more workers in the U.S. went on strike or participated in work stoppages than any year since 1986, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Workers demanding unions also are making their voices heard on the 2020 campaign trail. Democratic presidential candidates have stood on strike lines with McDonald’s workers in the Fight for $15 and a Union, as well as Stop and Shop workers, auto workers, Chicago public school teachers and more. Each of the top-tier Democratic candidates has released a strong labor plan to make it easier for millions more workers to join together in unions, no matter where they work. Collectively the plans are the most ambitious set of labor law reform proposals from presidential hopefuls in decades.
As the candidates respond, union members and workers involved in union organizing campaigns are mobilizing across the Midwest, where they recently launched a massive voter engagement effort in Michigan and Wisconsin. Workers in the Fight for $15 and a Union and the Service Employees International Union are joining forces to turn out Black, Brown and infrequent voters in an effort to make workers’ voices heard in the election. The effort will engage hundreds of thousands of voters through door-to-door canvassing, a comprehensive texting program, digital ads, and worksite-based engagement of union members and fast-food workers.