A year into UW Health union discussions, nurses chafe that pay isn’t on the table
A year ago, as UW Health nurses were on the verge of a three-day strike to demand union recognition, they and the hospital system’s management reached an eleventh-hour deal to avert the walkout.
In a compact that was brokered by Gov. Tony Evers, UW Health management agreed to meet directly with nurses and their union and discuss the concerns that had sparked the union drive more than four years ago. While not formal collective bargaining, it marked the first time that UW Health engaged the nurses and their union directly over their demands since their campaign began.
On Friday, UW Nurses United and UW Health both marked the anniversary of that deal — but with conflicting assessments.
The nurses’ union charged that the hospital system’s management was failing to live up to the process. The hospital system’s executives sent a memo to employees defending the hospital’s performance and proclaiming that the last year had been “a very positive year for nurses at UW Health.”
The UW Health memo stated that the hospital system had seen “low turnover, strong recruitment” and “multiple increases in compensation,” as well as external recognition for having “achieved the highest level of excellence in nursing.”
At a news conference called by the union, nurses offered a sharply different picture of conditions.
“We’ve given UW Health a full year and our patience is running out,” said Mary Jorgensen, an operating room nurse, at a news conference called by the union. “The crisis of understaffing, turnover and burnout have continued and have gotten worse in many areas.”
Wages and experience
The nurses’ focus Friday was on wages for the most experienced nurses, whose pay is capped rather than increasing when less experienced nurses get raises.
The “meet and discuss” agreement called for UW Health and the nurses to address how to promote “the highest quality of patient care, retention and recruitment of skilled professional nurses and the highest job satisfaction” of UW Health nurses.
Jorgensen said executives have shut wages and pay scales out of the discussion, however, while she blamed stagnation in pay levels for being one of the reasons more than 20% of operating room nurses have left this year.
“Understaffing is so severe that some nurses have to work 16-hour shifts, or 14 days in a row,” she said. “Relying on utterly exhausted, overstretched, demoralized nurses is not how you run a safe, high-quality operating room, especially a Level One trauma center.”
There has been a “lack of transparency around nurse’s pay scales, and executives refuse to let us participate in designing pay rates that are fair,” she said. While the nonprofit hospital system’s most recent unaudited financial report has shown that on $4.4 billion in operating revenue, it has had a gain of $273 million over its expenses and has $1 billion in cash reserves.
“Those massive resources need to go toward ensuring safe staffing, support and retention for those of us on the frontlines, not just to new buildings, branding, and excessive executive compensation,” Jorgensen said.
Friday’s press conference took place after members of UW Nurses United, affiliated with SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, met with Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) Friday to discuss their dispute. Speaking with the press afterward, Baldwin reiterated her endorsement of their cause.
“To our nurses, I see you, I hear you and I stand with you, and I urge UW Health to do the same and listen to our nurses and ensure that they are fairly compensated and treated with respect for their exceptionally hard work,” Baldwin said.
UW Health responds
The UW Health memo to employees was sent after a news report Friday about renewed tensions among nurses engaged with the union drive. The memo was signed by CEO Alan Kaplan and the hospital system’s senior vice president and chief nursing executive, Rudy Jackson.
It said that UW Health has added 250 direct care nurses in the last year and that overall turnover has gone down to 11.1%, “which puts us among the top 10 percent of all health systems.”
According to the memo, UW Health has begun reviewing nurses’ pay annually. It stated that the hospital system is targeting its nursing compensation to be higher than 75% of the market and recently announced a 3.5% annual pay increase.
At their press conference, however, nurses said that wage increases that have been offered haven’t kept up with recent inflation, and that those with the longest tenure now get bonuses rather than base wage increases — making “me and my coworkers feel incredibly insulted, disrespected and devalued,” Jorgensen said.
Nurses emphasized the importance of experience in their field and argued that not continuing to increase the pay of the most senior nurses was driving away veterans from the profession.
Colin Gillis, another nurses’ union leader, recalled that early in his five-year career he saw an experienced nurse and mentor call a “code blue” emergency for a patient who was bleeding profusely and cried for help, saying “I’m dying,”
When the nurse first made the call, Gillis said he was surprised “because we normally reserve code blues for patients who were unresponsive.” The patient subsequently collapsed and was resuscitated.
When he asked the older nurse later why she had acted so quickly and decisively, Gillis said, “That nurse looked me right in the eyes and said, ‘When a patient tells you they’re dying, believe them.’”
Gillis said changing pay practices to retain experienced nurses has been one of the issues in the organizing campaign from the start.
“When the meet and discuss process started I was hopeful. Our CEO, Dr. Kaplan, said he wanted to hear our priorities on every issue — including fair pay — that pertains to nurses,” Gillis said.
“But we have essentially been locked out of all discussions regarding compensation. To the UW Health administration, I say when nurses tell you that there is an emergency, believe us, and do something.”
The UW Health memo noted that executives and the union have met every two months but did not detail what the outcome of those sessions has been.
Gillis said that the discussion sessions with hospital management are continuing on topics in addition to compensation. “I don’t want to go into detail,” he said. “There has been some movement, but we’re frustrated that we’re not seeing concrete changes to the workplace yet.”
The nurses union organizing campaign has been underway since 2019. Language in Act 10, the 2011 law that former Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed, deleted a 1997 law that guaranteed health care workers at the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority union representation. After union contracts expired in 2014, UW Health executives said they could not negotiate new agreements because of Act 10.
In the September 2022 agreement averting the planned nurses’ strike, the union and UW Health agreed to submit questions about the status of UW Health and unions to the legal process.
One of those questions was whether UW Health was, despite Act 10, required to respect employees’ rights to unionize under the state’s 1939 Peace Act, which enshrines union rights for private sector workers in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) concluded in November 2022 that the labor peace act did not apply to the hospital system. That decision is now being appealed in Dane County Circuit Court.
Earlier this year the state Supreme Court declined UW Health’s petition to bypass lower courts and consider the separate question of whether the hospital authority could voluntarily recognize and bargain with the union. The WERC opinion did not address that question.
The UW Health agreement with the union to hold discussions also includes a provision that the nurses would not strike for union recognition.
The memo from executives to nurses Friday cited that provision. The memo also noted references in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article published Friday to the prospect of a walkout over the dissatisfaction among nurses.
The UW Health memo said if that happened, it would violate the agreement as well carry risks that the action would not be protected by state or federal labor laws.
Nurses have said that a job action is not planned but that they won’t rule it out, and that it would not violate the agreement because it would be over job issues, not to seek union recognition. Nurses’ union advocates have also said that if there is a walkout it would be preceded by a democratic rank-and-file vote.