Dozens of nurses with the University of Wisconsin declared that their effort is “essentially an uprising” against intolerable patient-to-nurse ratios at a recent event.

Nurses at Madison’s largest healthcare system set out on Thursday to reclaim what former Republican Gov. Scott Walker revoked eight years ago: their union.

Dozens of nurses with the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority declared at a December 19 event that their effort is “essentially an uprising” against unacceptable staffing levels and patient-to-nurse ratios, according to the announcement of their union, represented by SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin. 

In a letter to the hospital’s board, the nurses union stated that the board has the authority to voluntarily recognize and enter into a “meet-and confer” process with the union. 

A statement from the board did not address that request, indicating it may not immediately be granted.

Instead, the board stated UWHCA has “successfully implemented many processes to obtain direct employee feedback,” and that “UWHCA will continue to support our robust system of employee and nurse engagement.”

The nurses’ letter also included additional concerns, including  a perceived shift in culture away from quality care and toward maximizing corporate profit; nurses claims of having to care for six to eight patients at a time when most guidelines suggest a 4:1 staffing ratio; and an alleged increase in patients sleeping in beds in emergency room hallways rather than in regular patient rooms due to routine understaffing. While the announcement did not say how many nurses would be part of a collective bargaining unit, news reports quote a source as saying about 2,000 nurses would be impacted.

The nurses made no request for increased pay or benefits in the letter. 

“Workplace conditions have deteriorated and the level of care we can provide is not being prioritized to the point that we were left with a terrible choice: quit, which many great nurses have, or organize,” said Chuck Linsenmeyer, a nurse in the cardiac catheterization lab at UW Hospital with 29 years of experience. “We have chosen to unionize. We will build power on our own terms.”

Time began to run out on the old UW nursing contract after Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature passed the union-busting legislation known as Act 10. Passed in 2011, the new law impacted existing contracts once they expired, as the nurses’ agreement did in 2014. When the law passed, Walker removed UW Hospitals and Clinics from the Wisconsin Employment Peace Act, which meant the contract could no longer be renewed when.

“We’re demanding the resources, staffing and protections that are necessary to do our jobs effectively and advocate for our patients,” said Mariah Clark, an emergency department nurse at UW Hospital for the past five years. “By joining together in a strong union, we can raise standards, deliver the highest level of care for our patients and ensure everyone who works at the hospital can provide for their families while caring for others.”