By Frank Emspak
Illustration by Maggie Denman
This story was produced in partnership with Tone Madison.
Nurses at Unity Point Health-Meriter Hospital won a significant victory earlier this month with the ratification of a new labor contract. The nurses and their union, SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, succeeded through a combination of an energized and organized membership, competent leadership, and clear objectives. The Madison community supported the nurses’ demands for time off for rest and healing so they could better care for their patients and themselves. Nurses pointed out again and again that they were here for the community during the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year, and they asked the community to be there for them.
The settlement has implications that go far beyond Meriter, and could signal a broader change in the labor climate for healthcare workers around Madison.
Initially the nurses had five demands. On March 5, the bargaining committee outlined the remaining issues with management, noting that the union had been in negotiations for some weeks.
Wages were one issue. The union sought a raise in base pay above the inflation rate. Another issue was the length of the contract. While many unions try to negotiate two- and three-year agreements, SEIU argued for a one year contract so that the nurses’ contract and the SEIU’s Service and Support contract with Meriter would expire the same year. The Service and Support contract covers many of the blue collar-workers at Meriter, such as food service providers and janitorial staff. Having a joint expiration date of both the blue collar workers’ and nurses’ bargaining units would strengthen both.
The nurses’ union also sought relief for its members in terms of earned time off. The system at Meriter combines sick time and vacation time in the same pot. However, due to the pandemic, many nurses had used up their allotted sick and vacation time. Some actually owed time to the hospital. The nurses sought a significant increase in the earned time allotment so that nurses would have time off available as the year progressed.
According to the union, Meriter hospital was the only area hospital to challenge COVID-19-related workers’ compensation claims. The union provided figures indicating that hospital management fought the vast majority of claims on the grounds that the claimants could not prove that they contracted COVID while at work or from a particular patient.
Nurses also emphasized the need to be a part of the decision-making when it comes to dealing with both the current pandemic and any future, similar emergencies. The union asked repeatedly at the start of the pandemic for routine screening tests (the same tests used to screen every patient admitted to the hospital), a request the hospital denied.
Finally, the nurses sought an increase in the shift incentive. Working extra shifts is voluntary, but when nurses are asked to work extra shifts, they are paid an incentive. The payment is called incentive pay and nurses sought time-and-a-half for all hours worked if the hospital deems the shift a critical short shift. Currently nurses who volunteer to work an extra shift are not paid time and half for all hours worked.
According to the union, the hospital projects 31,000 hours of extra shifts in 2021. About 15 full-time nurses would need to be hired to fill this gap and end the excessive use of extra shift work.
On March 14, SEIU issued a 10-day strike notice, even as negotiations proceeded with the help of a mediator.
On Friday. March 19, unions from both the public sector and private sector, as well as those representing the building trades, came together to support the nurses. Especially important was a commitment by the leaders of Teamsters Local 344 to ask their members not to cross the nurse’s picket line should a strike be called. Local 344 represents approximately 5,000 package and delivery workers across Wisconsin. In a little more than one day, 2,000 community members signed a petition supporting the nurses. Several Madison-based state legislators also came out in support of the nurses in a press conference earlier in the month.
As Saturday, March 20 drew to a close, word went out that the nurses had reached a tentative agreement with Meriter. Almost all of the issues the nurses had raised were addressed in the contract.
The nurses won additional incentive pay to work extra shifts. They won the replenishment of their paid time off plan. Moving forward, no nurses will owe time to the hospital, and nurses could receive up to 60 hours of earned time in 2021. The actual amount of time will vary based on whether the nurses are full- or part-time.
Base wages will also go up 2.6 percent in 2021 and 2.6 percent in 2022.
The hospital agreed that it will rationalize scheduling and establish and announce a deadline for schedule posting that management will follow. This should diminish the likelihood of management calling in a nurse without any prior notice.
The hospital agreed to meet, confer, and bargain regarding the impact of government-declared health emergencies.
Finally, nurses will receive increased money to cover the costs of nursing certification and recertification, including exams, books and fees.
In other words, almost all the issues raised by the union were addressed in some positive manner by the settlement. Absent from the list was the common contract expiration demand. The union indicated that it did push strongly for this clause but the hospital simply would not budge. SEIU said it would continue to advocate on this issue.
According to Unity Point Health-Meriter, the contract increases wages “above market rate and on top of what is already one of the highest paid nurse workforces in Wisconsin.”
“The past few weeks have been extremely stressful for everyone at Meriter and many in the community,” Chief Nursing Executive Sherry Casali said in a statement. “We are committed to moving forward under the contract, as one strong Meriter team, to do what we do best: provide high-quality, compassionate care to our patients and community.”
As part of the ratification of the contract, the nurses’ union has agreed to withdraw the workforce allegations it submitted to the National Labor Relations Board.
The mobilization for a decent contract changed the union in many ways. As Victoria Gutierrez, a critical care nurse at Meriter, told me, “engagement is through the roof.” This engagement can be measured by the percentage of nurses who are actually members of the union. Meriter nurses do not have to join the union, and prior to the contract mobilization, many had not. This has now changed. According to union leadership, membership was around 70 percent before the contract negotiation and it is now around 90 percent.
The contract agreement was also widely supported by the membership. SEIU reported large participation in the electronic vote to ratify the contract, with 98.2 percent of the voters approving the contract.
The importance of community and labor support was clearly a factor in the overall success of the contract campaign. The South Central Federation of Labor demonstrated that it could bring together the labor community. Progressive state legislators acted collectively to support the nurses. This vigorous and widespread support indicated that should a strike occur, the hospital would be politically isolated, making it more difficult for Unity Point Health-Meriter to resist legislative initiatives regarding staffing and other issues.
The victory of the nurses may change the balance of forces for workers at SSM Health St Mary’s Hospital, who currently don’t have a union. As one nurse told me, nurses at Meriter are “110 percent excited about the union.” This enthusiasm will influence any attempt by SEIU to expand the unit at Meriter through the organization of the so far non-union, Meriter-associated clinics. It will certainly encourage nurses at St. Mary’s and UW Health, who will see that being in a union means progress for the nurses. The community will also benefit to the extent the staffing needs of the nurses are met, leading to better health care for the community.