WERC rules UW Health isn’t required to recognize nurses’ union

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) – The state’s labor relations board backed UW Health’s stance that the health system is not required to recognize nurses’ efforts to organize if it does not want to. Agency officials did not, however, reach a conclusion on whether hospital administrators could bargain collectively with the nurses.

The Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission ruled Friday that state law excludes UW Health from the types of employers covered under the state’s labor relations code, known as the Peace Act. In a three-page ruling, the WERC declared Act 10 removed the parts of the Peace Act that would have mandated UW Health recognize its employees’ attempts to organize.

WERC Attorney Peter Davis confirmed the ruling only covers whether state law requires UW Health to recognize the union. UW Health spokesperson Emily Kumlien also acknowledged the ruling did not cover voluntary recognition, and a statement from the health system reiterated its position that these issues will be settled in the courts.

“WERC’s decision is an important first step toward obtaining definitive answers from the Wisconsin legal system on both the question WERC addressed and whether UW Health could voluntarily recognize a union and bargain collectively,” it stated. Previously, hospital administrators asserted if organizers wanted their union recognized, the dispute would have to be settled in a courtroom. The health system’s statement Friday added its legal team will now turn to the state Supreme Court directly and ask the Wisconsin justices to settle the outstanding questions before they are heard in lower courts.

The union looking to represent UW Health’s nurses, SEIU, also said it was bracing for the clash to move to the courthouse. A statement attributed to three UW Health nurses disputed that UW Health was not covered by the Peace Act and said they would appeal the finding. Additionally, they will petition with the National Labor Relations Board for a union election.

“This is the first round in a multi-step process for nurses achieving collective bargaining rights, either through the courts, the NLRB, or through voluntary recognition by UW Health,” nurses Mary Jorgensen, Colin Gillis, and Sarah Langland said.

The WERC ruling came after both sides agreed in September to submit their dispute to the agency as part of a last-minute agreement to avoid an impending three-day strike. Organizers argued the nursing staff has dealt with understaffing, exhaustion, and burnout for years, issues only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. They contend a union would help them win better working conditions and increase the quality of patient care.

During the announcement of that deal, both sides primarily focused on the fact WERC would weigh in. Despite both sides agreeing to take the matter to the state agency, they both acknowledged, even then, that either party could end up suing.

When it comes to recognizing any union, UW Health contends its hands are tied by the then-controversial 2011 law that curtailed public employees’ collective bargaining powers in Wisconsin. The health system claims its internal counsel determined recognizing the union would violate Act 10 and claimed the Wisconsin Legislative Council and Legislative Reference Bureau have backed its conclusion. UW Health has stated, if organizers want to have their union recognized, the matter would have needed to be settled in a courtroom.

While the Legislative Council finding did determine that UW Health was not forced to recognize a union for collective bargaining purposes, it did leave the door open for organizers voluntarily recognition. Attorney General Josh Kaul went further in his opinion, as union backers have pointed out, saying that UW Health can voluntarily recognize them.

The multi-day walkout loomed ever since hundreds of nurses voted overwhelmingly on Aug. 25 to approve the action. A spokesperson for the union refused to say how many of the 2,600 nurses eligible to join the union actually voted to strike. The union also did not reveal how many of them would walk out during the strike.

In all, UW Health says they employ 3,400 total nurses.

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