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WERC rules UW Health is not required to recognize nurses union

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) – The state’s labor relations board has backed UW Health’s position that the health system is not required to recognize nurses’ efforts to organize if it doesn’t want to. However, agency officials have not reached a conclusion on whether hospital administrators can collectively bargain 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 stated that Act 10 removed the parts of the Peace Act that would have required UW Health to recognize its employees’ efforts to organize.

WERC attorney Peter Davis confirmed the ruling only covers whether state law requires UW Health to recognize the union. UW Health spokeswoman Emily Kumlien also acknowledged the ruling does not cover voluntary admissions, 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 addressed by WERC and whether UW Health can voluntarily recognize a union and bargain collectively,” it said said. Previously, hospital administrators claimed that if organizers wanted their union recognized, the dispute would have to be settled in a courtroom. The health system’s statement Friday added that its legal team will now go directly to the state Supreme Court, asking the Wisconsin justices to resolve the outstanding questions before they are heard in lower courts.

The union that wants to represent UW Health’s nurses, SEIU, also said it was preparing for the clash to move to the courthouse. A statement attributed to three UW Health nurses disputed that UW Health is not covered by the Peace Act and said they would appeal the finding. In addition, they will petition 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, whether through the courts, the NLRB, or through voluntary recognition by UW Health,” said nurses Mary Jorgensen, Colin Gillis and Sarah Langland.

The WERC decision came after both sides agreed in September to submit their dispute to the agency as part of a last-minute deal to avoid a looming three-day strike. Organizers argued the nursing staff had been dealing with understaffing, exhaustion and burnout for years, issues only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. They argue a union will help them get better working conditions and increase the quality of patient care.

During the announcement of that deal, both sides focused primarily on the fact that WERC would weigh in. Despite both sides agreeing to take the case to the state agency, they both acknowledged that either side could eventually sue.

As for recognizing any union, UW Health contends its hands are tied by the then-controversial 2011 law that curtailed public employee collective bargaining powers in Wisconsin. The health system claims its internal counsel determined the union admitted the union would violate Act 10 and claims the Wisconsin Legislative Council and Legislative Reference Bureau supported its conclusion. UW Health said if organizers wanted their union recognized, the case would have to be settled in a courtroom.

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

The multi-day walkout has occurred since hundreds of nurses voted overwhelmingly on August 25 to approve the action. A union spokesman declined to say how many of the 2,600 nurses eligible to join the union actually voted to strike. The union also did not disclose how many of them would walk out during the strike.

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

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