Hundreds of nurses will call for solutions to the crisis at UW Health and will be joined by their families and scores of elected, community, faith and labor leaders at the action, which will resonate throughout the state and nation.
Madison, WI- UW Health nurses announced today that they will hold a historic “Informational Picket for Safe Staffing, Quality Care and a Union” on February 24. Hundreds of nurses will be joined by their families and scores of elected, community, faith and labor leaders. The picket will be the same day that the UW Health Board meets, and will be held from 4-8 pm across the street from the UW Health emergency room entrance at University Bay Dr. and Highland Ave. in Madison. There will be a community rally at 6 pm.
For over two years, the strong majority of nurses have been calling on the UW Health Board and administration to recognize their union so they can advocate for themselves and their patients. But UW Health has refused to recognize them, and nurses have continued to struggle with long term, systemic problems including dangerous understaffing and alarming turnover, which have been aggravated by the pandemic.
“We’re holding this informational picket to let the UW Health Board and administration know we can’t wait a single minute longer, they must recognize our union immediately so we can work together to solve this growing crisis and protect patient safety,” said Mariah Clark, who works in the emergency department and has 14 years of service at UW Health. “This pandemic has been absolutely brutal and traumatic for frontline nurses, and without a union, we’ve had no real avenue to address our serious concerns. For two years now, Covid patients have flooded in with terrified looks in their eyes because they feel like they’re drowning. We’ve struggled to provide the best care while facing extreme understaffing, multiple cuts, and a lack of transparency and accountability from UW Health. They’ve called us essential heroes, but do not try to retain us or include us in meaningful decision-making around the issues that matter to us most. When I first started at UW, we had our union and it was an incredible place to work, but it doesn’t feel like bedside nurses are respected and valued anymore. Nurses have learned so much during this pandemic and developed an extraordinary level of expertise. The effects of the pandemic will be impacting nurses and our patients for years to come, and that’s why we need UW Health to work with us as partners in order to ensure the people of our city and state get the highest quality care moving forward.”
Nurses are suffering from extreme physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, and many are leaving UW Health and the medical field altogether, worsening the state’s nursing shortage. The informational picket will resonate across the state and nation, because UW nurses are at the forefront of a surging movement of healthcare workers demanding fundamental change and a union voice in their facilities. This will likely be the largest informational picket for union recognition in recent history.
A strong majority of nurses–over 1,500–recently signed cards demanding union recognition, and last month a large group presented them to the administration, but UW Health has yet to respond to their request. The size of the nurses’ union would ultimately be around 2,600.
UW Health can certainly afford to make urgent improvements in order to ensure safe staffing, recruitment and retention of nurses, and quality patient care. UW Health’s profits rose 162% in one fiscal year to over $538 million for 2021. The corporation has more than $2.8 billion in cash on hand, and received over $97 million in federal grants during the pandemic.
UW nurses used to have a union, but when their last contract expired in 2014, executives used Wisconsin Act 10 as an excuse to not negotiate a new agreement. The administration then proceeded to implement dozens of harmful cuts, including to nurses’ staffing levels, health insurance and continuing education benefits, resulting in severe difficulties with recruitment and retention. A strong majority of nurses had originally signed union cards in 2019, but the board refused to recognize them and nurses were forced to struggle through the pandemic without a real say in policies, safety and working conditions.
Last year, the Wisconsin Legislative Council, a non-partisan government agency, reviewed all applicable law and concluded that UW Health can voluntarily recognize the nurses’ union and start negotiating a contract. An October memorandum from the Legislative Council states that “2011 Act 10 simply deleted the obligation and duty for UWHCA to engage in collective bargaining with its employees, and did not replace the former duty with language prohibiting collective bargaining… [E]mployees may seek…voluntary recognition by UWHCA.”
“I became a nurse because it’s so fulfilling to care for vulnerable newborn babies and support their parents, but it’s become very difficult to provide the personalized attention they require,” said Courtney Younkle who has been a registered nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at UW Health’s American Family Children’s Hospital for almost eight years. “UW Health is in the midst of a staffing crisis which is largely of its own making because of all the cuts since our last union contract ended. Executives claim that nurses have a voice through their ‘shared governance’ structure, but I was active in that process for nearly four years, and it doesn’t empower nurses to make the substantive changes we need. The final decision-making lies in the hands of boardroom executives, not bedside nurses. Now nurses are so drained, we feel like we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. We need our community to realize what nurses are going through, because it’s impacting the care they and their loved ones receive. And the UW Health Board and administration need to clearly understand we will not stop, we’ll continue to do whatever it takes to win our union.”