I suspect that just about anyone in south central Wisconsin who watches television has seen an ad touting the medical services provided by UW Hospital and Clinics. One frequently aired piece praises a surgical team who saved a child suffering from a congenital heart ailment. As the ad ends, a satisfied covey of caregivers face the camera while the unseen narrator terms their performance “remarkable!”
From a personal standpoint, I won’t quibble with this somewhat sentimental piece of self-promotion. As a minister serving a congregation of 2,000 men, women and children, I’ve sat beside enough beds at the UW Hospital over the last quarter-century to have developed a deep appreciation for the skill, dedication and sensitivity of that institution’s staff. Members of my own family have also received considerate care and valuable advice from UW providers, no small number of whom are either friends or congregants.
The UW Hospital and Clinics system has expanded significantly over the years and in the process brought on board medical practitioners and support staff of the highest caliber. These people take pride in the work they do and are committed to upholding their employer’s exceptional reputation. It would be a shame if the positive and productive relationship that has developed over the years between the institution and its dedicated personnel were to be sullied. Even more distressing would be a decline in the current high quality of care because of a shift in labor relations policy.
Unfortunately, that may happen if, after Dec. 31, the system’s administrative leadership elects to terminate its accords with bargaining units currently representing many employees. From a legal standpoint, the system's CEO would be perfectly at liberty to take this step, in accordance with Act 10, signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker in 2011. Should this occur, hospital and clinic personnel would no longer enjoy a collective voice and a workforce of 5,000 would be forced into “at will” contracts allowing for termination at any time and for any reason.
Stripped of their historic rights and denied a seat at the table, UW health care providers could be required to work onerous double shifts or to serve more patients than was safe or prudent. But in addition to concerns about unmanageable workloads and the potentially adverse affect on patients, there is the issue of morale. We have already witnessed the disquieting effect Act 10 has had in other public sectors, with many highly competent yet disconsolate state workers seeking alternative employment or early retirement.
I have been in hospitals in other communities where staff seemed unmotivated, evinced little concern for patients and delivered perfunctory care. These men and women were resigned to performing rote tasks in an impersonal system that deemed their interests and voices irrelevant. Welcome to the world of Walmartized medicine.
In order to receive the best professional attention, Wisconsin consumers of medical services should demand a just and humane workplace for those who have been trained to provide it. In 1997 my own Unitarian Universalist denomination approved a general resolution encouraging employers to respect the right of workers to organize, to bargain collectively, to be protected from unsafe working conditions, and to be protected from unjust dismissal. At a time when men and women throughout the Wisconsin workforce are being denied these basic and long-standing rights, this resolution is more relevant than ever before.
Michael A. Schuler serves as senior minister of the First Unitarian Society of Madison.