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SEIU intervenes in Wisconsin nurse unionization dispute

Labor disputes and strikes are central parts of the playbook for public-sector unions, and this is certainly the case in Wisconsin where union organizing efforts appear to have hit a snag for the Services Employees International Union (SEIU). A state labor relations commission recently ruled that the University of Wisconsin Health (UW Health) system cannot formally recognize a union, which has led to an ongoing legal dispute between nurses aligned with the SEIU and UW Health.

The Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) ruled that according to the state’s Wisconsin Employment Peace Act (WEPA), UW Health is not recognized as an employer and therefore cannot legally recognize a union. WERC wrote that the law, which outlines state collective bargaining rights, “does not apply to the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority and its employees and its chosen representatives.” The state board traced WEPA’s history, which showed that the law previously named UW Health as an employer in the late 1990’s, but that reference was later removed by other amendments and legislative actions. Still, the legislature retains the power to restore UW Health’s employer status, but any change would have to come through further legislative action.

Additionally, Wisconsin Act 10, passed in 2011, prohibits collective bargaining for workers at UW Health. A state legislature-issued memo noted that Act 10 “eliminates collective bargaining for childcare providers, employees of the UW Hospitals and Clinics Authority, and home care providers.” The passage of Act 10 essentially dissolved the state’s SEIU healthcare workers’ union by removing collective bargaining rights from the union’s base, which may explain SEIU’s involvement in the nurse-UW Health labor dispute today.

But Act 10, according to the opinion of Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, allows for voluntary collective bargaining between hospitals and nurses, and under that definition, UW Health employees would be able to vote to unionize under SEIU. Employees indicated that desire when UW Health nurses worked with the union this past September to threaten a strike.

Though SEIU cannot officially represent them, the union negotiated on behalf of UW Health nurses during the strike threat. The union gained concessions from UW Health and state lawmakers, ending the strike before it happened and paving the way for future unionization.

The contradictions and various legal opinions surrounding this case suggest that WERC’s ruling will be appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. A UW Health spokesperson said that the hospital will seek additional legal opinion on the issue, “We believe that an expedited decision on these important legal issues will best allow us to move forward, which is why we are petitioning the Wisconsin Supreme Court for an opinion on these questions.”

WERC’s ruling is a temporary legal setback, but all signs point to further legal challenges to state laws on collective bargaining.

Spencer Irvine

Spencer Irvine is Senior Writer & Researcher at Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector employees offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Spencer previously worked in state government, in communications for a non-profit advocacy organization, and held various administrative and communications roles at a media analysis organization. He has a master’s degree in public administration from George Washington University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Brigham Young University. He lives in Arizona with his wife, is an avid history buff and enjoys touring historic sites.