Utah Health Workers United

Written by: Garrett Schwanke, BSN, RN

A United Union

Utah Health Workers United (UHWU) CWA Local 7765 is the first healthcare union of its kind in Utah. We are a wall-to-wall, pre-majority union of publicly employed health workers at University of Utah Health, an academic healthcare system in Salt Lake City, Utah.

After years of organized efforts, UHWU went public on November 16th, 2023. We were motivated by concerns familiar to all healthcare workers: proliferating moral injury, deteriorating quality of care, and increasing productivity demands due to “lean” staffing. (There are not enough squid to supply the ink necessary to discuss this adequately). Americans pay more for health care than other high-income nations, but outcomes are worst in class. This should be intolerable to everyone!

Additionally, we aim to address worsening income inequality, the skyrocketing cost of living, working on the Wasatch Front, and the unsatisfactory response by administrators despite voicing our concerns year after year.


What is a Pre-majority Union?

A pre-majority union is an organizing model that effectively addresses a deficit in traditional collective bargaining units. Namely, public sector employees are not included with private sector employees under the National Labor Relations Act (1935). This act guarantees rights to organize, engage in collective bargaining, and undertake collective actions, e.g., strikes.

However, all people enjoy essential, complementary protections under the First Amendment: freedom of speech and rights to peaceably assemble and petition the government to redress grievances. We can consolidate and exercise our power as a pre-majority union by collectively appealing to these rights.

UHWU is already identifying issues of collective concern, including staffing and compensation, which will inform campaigns for specific improvements justified by the data. If administrators stonewall our demonstrably reasonable demands, they will elicit strategically escalating collective actions until we compel capitulation.

In this way, we can begin to meaningfully exercise self-governance instead of futilely waiting for administrators to share it. They’ve have repeatedly promised, and failed to follow through. Healthcare workers who have organized using this model have successfully obtained meaningful concessions from UCHealth. These changes included wage increases in 2021 and 2022, whistleblower protections in 2022, and the end of costly TRAP contracts, break policy implementation, and limited free parking in 2023.

 

Denver Health workers have had an outsized influence. Executives accepted temporary pay cuts after workers organized in 2020. A subsequent compensation review proved as many as one-third of nurses and technicians were due wage increases.


A Roadmap for the Future

Advocating for healthcare workers is advocating for patients. In other words, “our working conditions are our patients’ healing conditions.” Unsafe and inhumane conditions include stolen power, inadequate compensation, and excessive productivity demands. This is exploitation by definition.

The United States Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, states that our healthcare system is responsible for the conditions causing healthcare worker burnout. Truthfully, we can’t “self-care” our way out of such a crisis. Organizing is necessary to redistribute power in the workplace to effectively address these conditions for the well-being of workers and patients. A better world is possible when we unite for our common interests.

 

Bio

Garrett is a doctor of nursing practice student in the psychiatric mental health track and a former oncology nurse. He is an original member of the UHWU organizing committee, and his professional interests include substantive leadership, population health and systems thinking, and allostatic justice. Find him outside 🏔️🥾🎿

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