‘This is a path that did not exist last week’: Nurses, union leaders celebrate deal with UW Health to avoid strike

MADISON, Wis. — “Groundbreaking” — that’s what some UW Health nurses and union leaders are calling the last-minute deal they reached with hospital management to avoid a three-day strike.

“UW Nurses, guess what? You did it, you did it!,” Assembly District 77 Rep. Sheila Stubbs (D-Madison) cheered on stage at a victory celebration at the Madison Labor Temple Tuesday evening.

During the event, nurses and their supporters celebrated what they did — and avoided doing.

“Today was supposed to be the start of the strike for the UW nurses fighting for the right to have a union,” said Pat Raes, the president of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin.

RELATED: UW Health reaches agreement with nurses and union leaders, averting strike

UW nurses still can’t unionize. While some may think that means the deal is pointless or that nurses lost, Raes said that’s not the case.

“This is a path that did not exist last week,” she said, “and that’s really the important part. We now have a way to move forward, where they were at that stalemate.”

That stalemate ended after three days of negotiations, which shifted to Governor Tony Evers’ mansion before coming to an end.  

RELATED: UW Health officials, nurses meet at Governor’s mansion in bid to avert strike 

 “We won! It’s huge for workers across Wisconsin, they could do it as well,” said Mary Jorgensen, an inpatient nurse at UW Hospital’s operating room.  

At the rally, Raes spoke to News 3 Now, breaking down what the deal means for the nurses.  

“UW is allowing them to become, not become part of the union, but UW has agreed to allow them to start having dues removed so they can become associate members of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin,” she explained.

The hospital also agreed that nurses have the right to “meet and discuss” meetings with management to bring up issues they feel need attention.

That, Raes said, “is more than what their shared governance was because that was oftentimes directed strictly by management, and that’s where the nurses were fighting it so hard.”

Now, SEIU and the hospital are allowed to petition the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission to decide if the Wisconsin Employment Peace Act will enable nurses to unionize.

In June, Attorney General Josh Kaul wrote an opinion saying UW Health can voluntarily collectively bargain with the union, but UW Health has said its legal counsel has concluded it cannot do so due to the landmark Act 10 legislation that reshaped collective bargaining for public sector unions in Wisconsin.

RELATED: AG opinion says UW Health can voluntarily collectively bargain with nurses’ union

Both parties have the right to appeal the WERC’s ruling to the courts, which could include taking the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

“Nurses are real(ly) popular right now so, and there’s elections coming up, so I think I think we’re in good shape,” Jorgensen said of their chances if they go to the state’s highest court. 

The nurses agreed not to go on strike until any legal cases end. 

“They realize that they still have a long fight in front of them they realize that there’s a lot of work to move forward,” said Raes. “But this is still a definite step forward that is something they have not had they have a voice now.”

After announcing the deal, UW Health CEO Dr. Alan Kaplan said patient care remains the top priority for everyone involved. The deal now lets both sides work toward a resolution while caring for patients.