In late August, nurses at UW Health voted to support a three day walkout set for mid-September. The nurses’ campaign for a union began in 2019. The nurses have asked for voluntary recognition by demonstrating support of more than 1,500 nurses, arguing that recognition is possible (and the state Attorney General concurs). Management has not engaged and maintains that it cannot. The impasse has led the nurses to plan this three day walkout. While the technical questions on voluntary recognition are unique at UW Health, underlying issues in the industry fueling nurses’ organizing are not.
Across the nation, the pandemic intensified problems that nurses faced in their work. In a January 2022 New York Times opinion video “We know the real cause of the crisis in our hospitals. It’s greed.” nurses from across the nation talk about burnout, physical threats, chronic understaffing, and the ways that managerial efforts at efficiency have decimated nurses’ ability to provide the level of care patients need.
Nurses in Madison echo these themes. In our interview with Pat Raes, the president of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin and a nurse at Meriter Hospital, she noted:
“I have met very few nurses that do not want to care for their patients as if they would care for a family member. It has gotten harder and harder to do that on a regular basis because we’re being asked to work short-staffed more often. We may not have a full contingent of nurses. We may not have a health unit coordinator. We may not have nursing assistants.”
For her, the lean staffing compromises the quality of care that a nurse can provide.
Veteran nurse and union supporter at UW Health, Mary Jorgensen, talks about how her workplace has evolved and how much harder the work of being a nurse has become:
“It was a great place to work when we had the union… once you got in, nurses never left. Fast forward eight, ten years, and now we’re hemorrhaging nurses, people are leaving the field, and a lot of the young nurses are realizing that they can’t do this hard, hard work that they so wanted to do.”
Interest in unions is growing among nurses. Sharing her experience educating workers about the union, Pat Reas says:
“It is not as difficult now as what it was a couple of years back, because people are at least more curious about why people are trying to become union members. People are tired of accepting the status quo and are more willing to fight for what they want if they have the time and the energy.”
Jorgensen is also optimistic:
“I really believe the labor movement is back. I think that corporate America has just taken advantage of the middle class for far too long, and we’re finally beginning to say: enough is enough, this isn’t fair, this isn’t right, and people are really suffering.”