Nurses and other medical professionals walked into a meeting of the UW Hospital & Clinics Board of Directors on Thursday to urge hospital leadership to recognize their unions and continue to negotiate in good faith with employees after their collective bargaining agreements expire at the end of the year.
"Employees are worried," Lisa Fleener, who works in the hospital's admissions department, told the dozen board members seated around the table. "They've told us that, but they also expect you to do the right thing."
"Act 10 does not prevent you from keeping the relationship (between management and employees) that has made this hospital number one," she said.
Unlike most other public employees, whose collective bargaining rights were severely restricted, employees of the UW Hospital, which operates independently of the state as a "public authority," were stripped of all collective bargaining by Act 10. Many of the medical staff, including nurses, food workers and custodians, are still operating under collective bargaining agreements approved three years ago. What will happen after the agreements expire is not clear.
The two unions representing hospital staff – SEIU and AFSCME – have sought community support to pressure the hospital to negotiate with them as much as is permissible under the law.
The model they hope the hospital follows, argued AFSCME Council 24 executive director Marty Beil at a rally held outside the hospital, is Dane County, whose board of supervisors has not only taken advantage of the legal limbo that Act 10 is in by approving collective bargaining agreements that extend for years into the future, but has also approved a new "employee benefits handbook" that outlines a process by which the county will continue to consult with employees about compensation and work conditions, even if it is forbidden by law from engaging in collective bargaining.
"We want them to recognize that their employees have a voice on the job," said Dian Palmer, president of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin. "We're not asking them to do anything against Act 10, we're asking them to work within the parameters of Act 10 and they can do that by taking the provisions that we have so carefully negotiated over the years and putting them in a policy so that the employees here will still have some protections."
So far, Palmer said, hospital management has not indicated what its plans are for dealing with workers after the labor contracts expire. Although UW Hospital CEO Donna Katen-Bahensky originally objected to the hospital's inclusion in Act 10, writing in a letter to Gov. Scott Walker that collective bargaining at the institution had no fiscal effect on the state budget, she has not indicated what type of relationship, if any, the hospital will have with its unions after the contracts expire.
During the speeches by the employees, Katen-Bahensky and other board members sat silently, directing their attention to the speakers, making no discernible expressions in support or opposition.