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Brave New World

March/May 2013
Feature Story

Wisconsin chapter reinvents itself in the face of major collective bargaining changes.

JAMES EFFENHEIM HAD never been very involved in the work of the union, but when the events in Wisconsin surrounding Act 10—a measure that limited collective bargaining for most public employees in the state—began to boil over, he had a change of heart. “Gov. Walker tried to take away the voice of the middle class,” says Effenheim. “Someone has to speak for the middle class, and the union is that voice.”
The union, he adds, is “the counterbalance to the Scott Walkers of the world who create policies that favor the wealthy. It is the counterbalance to groups like ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council].”

Effenheim, a registered nurse who works in the emergency room of the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division and a member of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals chapter there, protested the loss of his collective bargaining rights by playing his accordion on the back of his truck dubbed “the recall wagon,” and gathering signatures to recall Gov. Walker.
When the recall vote fell short, Effenheim decided to dig in and became a steward at large for his local. Today, he helps his chapter president, Jeff Weber, with membership organizing. “When I talk to people about being part of the union, I let them know that the union is about preserving their voice in the work environment. Without the union, you have no voice.”

The benefits of belonging

Well before Act 10 went into effect, Jeff Weber began laying a foundation to strengthen his WFNHP chapter to counter what he knew could be a law with devastating consequences. Weber, an acute care registered nurse with the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division in Milwaukee, educated the members about what was going to happen after Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining law was implemented.
“This is so new for everyone,” says Weber, “I wanted to let them know that the union was going to be there for them.”

Weber’s pre-emptive strike seems to have worked: Membership in his local union chapter is on the rise, while public sector union membership has plummeted throughout the state. In fact, Weber has managed to sign up 78 percent of the workers at the county mental health facility and other county-run facilities and agencies.
“The union had a lot of success before Act 10,” says Effenheim. “We have a very strong union that has allowed us to negotiate fair wages and fair working conditions. That voice and its strength will remain in place.”

The chapter’s membership has dwindled a bit, but Weber is quick to note that it’s not because people are dropping out of the union. “The division has lost employees to retirement, and the others have left because of the job. This is a county system plagued by budget issues, so it makes it harder to compete with other sectors in healthcare. The benefits we used to offer, like good pensions and healthcare, which offset the lower wages, aren’t there anymore; so it’s difficult to retain people,” Weber adds.

“This can be a difficult place to work especially when dealing with the mentally ill,” Weber says of the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division. The division is home to programs for the care and treatment of developmentally, emotionally and mentally ill adults, children and adolescents in Milwaukee.

It is also home to many of the roughly 280 unionized registered nurses, advanced practice nurse prescribers, occupational therapists and music therapists.
To bring more members into the fold, Weber focuses on the positive. He speaks from the heart about the union. And Weber can be very persuasive.

“It’s the personal conversations. It’s not reading a script or leaving a phone message,” he says. “It’s truly a face-to-face talk about the benefits of being a union member.”
Janice Hansen was persuaded. Hansen, an occupational therapist, started working at the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division at the end of last year. When Weber approached Hansen about joining, she asked him to tell her why she should become a member.

“Basically, what persuaded me to join was knowing I would have the ‘backing’ of the union,” says Hansen. Hansen used to work for the county but left to work in the private sector for nearly a decade. “I have never been in a union and never gave being a part of a union any thought. So this is all new to me,” she says. Hansen wants to feel protected and is convinced that the union gives her that protection. “It’s hard out there for everyone. I wish other people had some of the protections I have. I feel blessed and thankful.”

The power of the union

“It’s a bit of an anomaly to be bringing in members voluntarily,” says Effenheim. But the chapter continues to grow. “The members who have decided to sign up or stay with the union know the power of the union.”

Effenheim has been with the county for 24 years, working with psychiatrists in the facility to evaluate patients for the next step in their mental health care. “I see people in their most acute stage,” he says. Because the facility is a county facility, it is often targeted around budget time even though it provides care for some of the most vulnerable populations in Milwaukee: the working poor, people without insurance, the homeless and those with acute mental illness.

“The community needs this facility,” says Effenheim. “The people—especially the homeless and those without insurance—need it too. Without it, there’s no place for them to go. This is the only place in the city where they can get treatment.”

“We see people who are acutely ill and potentially dangerous, and it’s the union that insists on safe staffing levels and safe working conditions. The union is proactive about these things,” says Effenheim. “By staying organized, we can influence things for the better. As a union, we are so much stronger when we address the county board or any other lawmakers about policies or budget items that affect our patients.”

And the local is building community coalitions with groups such as MICAH (Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope), Voces de la Frontera and other unions, to save programs important to the county and its residents. “We have built relationships with these groups since Act 10,” Weber says. “The greatest thing that Walker did was unite us in a common cause. People recognize the nurses, and that gives us a certain cachet within the community.”

The good fight

Candice Owley, president of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals and an AFT vice president, believes that union locals must begin to redefine themselves. It’s time to see the bigger picture, she says. “The decline in union members is not just a problem for labor unions, it’s also a problem for workers in our country. Fewer people are recognizing the importance of having a labor movement in our country,” says Owley. “The union is not about the contract. The contract is a tool, but it doesn’t define us in our entirety. As members, we pay our dues so we can stand together and fight back.”

And Weber’s chapter, it would seem, likes a good fight. The union recently was successful in quashing an attempt by the county executive to take health benefits away from employees working fewer than 30 hours a week. A few months later, union members mobilized again to stop an effort to privatize health services in the county corrections department.

The union also is advocating on behalf of patients and workers by pressing for safer working conditions. Short staffing was chronic in the division a few years ago.Weber encouraged members to fill out unsafe staffing forms and turn them over to management and to the county executive. The action caused the county board to include an increase in the number of certified nursing assistant positions in its budget.

“Our solidarity on this issue changed staffing ratios. Today, staffing levels are much improved because of this effort,” says Weber.

The solutions provided by the union have enhanced its relationship with county board members. “Being able to work with the county board —our ultimate bosses—makes all the difference in the world,” explains Weber. “We stand together to get a resolution with the behavioral health division on our issues, but if that doesn’t work, we know we can take it a step further and go to the board.”

For example, last year, when a community support program that provides services for the mentally ill was on the chopping block, chapter members mobilized and reached out to county board members who put the program back into the budget.

In 2011, the chapter negotiated a one-year contract with the county for 2012. “It may not seem like much, but the fact that we were able to get a contract meant a lot,” Weber says. “It solidified our strength as a union. We were able to get an agreement when others couldn’t get it done. We are strong, and we are going to stay that way.”