US nurses tell The Lamp what’s at stake in Wisconsin

Susan Schwegel
Susan Schwegel

Susan Schwegel, nurse, Milwaukee County Behavioural Health Complex:

“It’s very important that nurses have the right to make their voices heard in mental health. Governor Walker is taking away this right and the right to a safe work environment. We need a governor who represents all of us, not just corporate greed and money people.” Asked if she had any advice to NSW nurses who might face similar attacks on working conditions, Susan said: “Stay together as a group – strength in numbers will prevail regardless of what country you live in.”

Jeff and Anne Weber
Jeff and Anne Weber

Jeff Weber, psychiatric nurse, Milwaukee County Behavioural Health Complex:

“The governor is now trying to remove 64,000 needy children from our state health care program. It’s been a year-long battle to get our human rights back but we’re not giving up.”

Bonnie Pedraza
Bonnie Pedraza

Bonnie Pedraza, nurse, Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Centre:

“Our governor is trying to take away our collective bargaining rights, he’s trying to silence the unions. Having a collective bargaining agreement allows us to speak up on behalf of our patients. We need our unions to help us get safe conditions for health care workers as well as our patients; to ensure that nurses are not fatigued through overwork. Patient-to-staff ratios are very important to performing our jobs effectively. If the patient load is too heavy we cannot meet our patients’ needs.”


A civil right to organise

All persons have the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of their interests. UN Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23(4)

United States’ unions have been stripped of many rights in recent decades, through the rewriting of labour laws.

They now face an unprecedented assault from a radicalised Republican right, using legislation to deny collective-bargaining rights and membership.

Developments like Wisconsin’s anti-worker laws have prompted a growing movement to enshrine the “right to organise” in US federal laws such as the Civil Rights Act – the landmark 1964 law that outlawed discrimination against African Americans.

Academics Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit are among those who argue that Americans ought to have a “civil right to organise”. Writing in the New York Times they note: “From the 1940s to the 1970s, organised labour helped build a middle-class democracy in the United States. The postwar period was as successful as it was because of unions, which helped enact progressive social legislation from the Civil Rights Act to Medicare.”

The authors identify “the greatest impediment to unions” as “weak and anachronistic labour laws”, adding:

“It’s time to add the right to organise a labour union, without employer discrimination, to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, because that right is as fundamental as freedom from discrimination in employment and education.”


What Wisconsin nurses lost

A law signed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker eliminated collective bargaining rights for 175,000 public employees including nurses. Under the law their unions are permitted to bargain for wage rises only, with any pay increase capped at the consumer price index – a measure of inflation.

Unions are prohibited from bargaining for items such as sick leave, transfer and promotion rights, health and superannuation benefits, holiday pay, health and safety, and overtime.

Payroll deduction of union dues by public sector unions is prohibited.

Unions representing public employees must hold a recertification election every year to show that the union has sufficient support. The union will be decertified if it does not receive the support of at least 51% of all employees in the bargaining unit, regardless of how many actually vote. This means that employees who fail to vote are counted as a “no” vote.

The Republican legislators who wrote this law would not be in office if held to the same standard electorally.