Wisconsin health professionals' contract victory reflects strength

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The nurses and health professionals working at St. Francis Hospital in Milwaukee have ratified a new three-year contract. The healthcare workers are represented by the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals. The Oct. 11 ratification ended weeks of bargaining between the members of the WFNHP negotiating team and Ascension Healthcare, which owns the hospital.

St. Francis negotiating team

Sharon McBride, a patient care assistant, decided to get involved with the work of the union by joining the bargaining team for the first time. She did so because the union was there for her when she needed to address a problem on the job. "I saw how hard my rep fought for me, and I knew I wanted to be able to do that for someone else," she says. Being on the team gave her a chance to better the lives of her colleagues, says McBride.

WFNHP's bargaining team gave no concessions during this contract. A proposal by hospital management to take away time-and-a-half pay for  on call work and  daily overtime was met with fierce resistance from WFNHP's members, hundreds of whom signed a petition critical of the proposal. The collective action brought the voice of those members to the bargaining table, and they retained time and a half pay.. Additionally, the team also reduced the number of shifts a member must work on call in order to earn a higher rate of call pay – a right that sets the WFNHP members apart from other Ascension employees. It was a win that thrilled McBride. "Many members depend on time and a half, so it was great to walk away from the table with those improvements," she says.

WFNHP's team was also able to scrap the hospital's performance evaluation system, a system that was tied to employee raises but that workers felt was too subjective. In addition, the hospital will create a more transparent process for filling vacancies.

Jennifer Dzemske, a registered nurse at the hospital, also joined the bargaining team for the first time and found the experience to be educational and a bit stressful. The hospital brought in a lawyer from outside the area to negotiate for management. "He didn't know anything about our hospital," Dzemske says. In addition, the hospital moved the bargaining sessions off hospital grounds, a tactic that Dzemske didn't approve of. Having the sessions at the hospital made them more accessible to workers who wanted to come by and sit in on the proceedings, she says.

"We've always bargained at the hospital," says Connie Smith, a surgical tech at the hospital, who was also on the negotiating team. But during the last contract negotiations, WFNHP's team invited community members to the sessions, and they packed the room to share how much the hospital and its workers meant to them, says Smith. "They were so intimidated by what we did that they decided the hospital was no longer neutral ground, so they tried to quell our strength by moving the sessions, but it didn't work."

McBride agrees: "It was a hard fight, but they heard us because we were adamant about what we wanted."

[Adrienne Coles/photo WFNHP]