UW Hospital nurses union

Cindy West, a nurse at UW Hospital, rallies outside of UW Hospital in December.

A 2011 state law that ended most collective bargaining for most state employees went a step further at UW Hospital, where the law known as Act 10 is eliminating union representation for about 5,000 workers.

The first big impact will come Monday, when a contract ends for about 2,000 nurses and therapists represented by the Service Employees International Union chapter SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin.

Administrators agreed to boost pay temporarily partly to counter increases in pension and health insurance costs the employees will face under Act 10. But workers say that without a union, they will be less able to file grievances and protect the policies that can affect patient care, such as a 2006 ban on mandatory overtime for nurses.

“We’re facing a great amount of uncertainty,” said Ann Louise Tetreault, a nurse at the hospital for nearly 38 years.

Another large worker group at UW Hospital will be affected in January, when the contract ends for about 2,800 medical assistants, housekeepers, security guards, food service workers and others in the Wisconsin State Employees Union.

The workers, who are seeking public support through ads and appearances at parades and other events, continue to ask administrators to recognize the unions. But doing so wouldn’t be “consistent with the letter and spirit of Act 10 that governs us,” hospital spokeswoman Lisa Brunette said.

“We’re still hoping that public pressure will push them to where they say this is the right thing to do,” said Brad Cords, a security guard.

Donna Katen-Bahensky, UW Hospital CEO, said the hospital “remains committed to both providing the highest quality of care and recognizing the important contributions made by all employees.”

Act 10, introduced by Gov. Scott Walker, banned collective bargaining for public employees, except for public safety workers, for all but an inflationary pay increase. It ended required union dues and automatic dues deductions from paychecks. Unions seeking to recertify must get approval from 51 percent of an employee group.

For UW Hospital — which became a public authority, separate from the university, in 1996 — the law prohibits continuing union contracts or bargaining with unions at all, hospital administrators say.

Other hospital unions affected are the Wisconsin Professional Employees Council, with about 70 workers, and Wisconsin Science Professionals, with about 180 workers. Their contracts already expired.

The four unions covered about 60 percent of the hospital’s 8,400 employees.

When Walker proposed Act 10, Katen-Bahensky told hospital employees she “did not anticipate and certainly did not request” the law’s action regarding hospital unions.

In a letter to Walker at the time, Katen-Bahensky said eliminating the hospital unions would have “no fiscal effect” on the state budget because the hospital gets no general purpose revenue.

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Union leaders said Katen-Bahensky and other administrators have been open to discussions about working conditions after the contracts end but unwilling to codify any union-like protections — or seek legislative changes, as they routinely do for other matters.

“They have a very strong lobbying ability,” said Tetreault, treasurer of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin. “They go up there and lobby heavily for what they want.”

The Madison City Council and Dane County Board passed resolutions last year asking UW Hospital to try to maintain the unions.

Like other workers affected by Act 10, hospital employees now have to start paying half of the contribution for retirement benefits — workers must kick in 7 percent of their earnings this year — and at least 12 percent of the tab for health insurance premiums.

Administrators are permanently increasing wages by 4 percent to 13 percent for workers who make $20 an hour or less and giving supplemental pay for two years for those who make more. The supplement amount starts at 4 percent, tapering a percentage point every six months to

1 percent.

Other changes include a reduction in sick days, from 13 a year to 12, and dips in some types of bonus pay.

UW Hospital nurses worry that staffing levels could be reduced, requests to “float” to unfamiliar units could be increased and mandatory overtime could return, Tetreault said.

According to a presentation by administrators, “there will be no change to our current ban on mandatory overtime.”

But Tetreault said economic forces could cause hospital leaders to renege on their good intentions.

Nurses at Meriter Hospital continue to have a union. Those at St. Mary’s Hospital don’t have one.

Brunette said the hospital formed a “50 Star Council” last year for employees to offer ideas, raise concerns and provide feedback, as well as to disseminate information. Administrators say their “Act 10 Transition Plan” is “affordable and sustainable” and “ultimately in the best interest of everyone at (UW Hospital).”

Dian Palmer, president of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, said employees can remain union members and advocate outside of the workplace for broader change.

“We’re disappointed about the UW, but we have in no way given up,” Palmer said.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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