Sep 23, 2022 - News

Ascension Seton nurses vote to unionize

Illustration of hands in medical gloves holding red picket signs, forming a red cross symbol.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

More than two-thirds of nurses at Ascension Seton Medical Center voted to unionize this week, becoming the largest private-sector hospital in Texas to do so.

Why it matters: Against a backdrop of global economic unrest, the clash between workers and bosses is now coming to an ER near you.

Catch up quick: Nurses at the Catholic hospital announced their intent to unionize in June, pointing to burnout and understaffing exacerbated by the pandemic.

What they're saying: "This victory is just the beginning," Geovana Hill, a registered nurse in the renal unit, said in a statement. "We are looking forward to bargaining for a fair contract to improve patient safety, as well as competitive wages to keep Austin nurses working here in our community."

  • Among their asks: Recruiting and retaining nurses.
  • "During the pandemic, we saw lots of staff leave our hospital because of the worsening conditions," said Matthew Clark, a registered nurse in the intensive care unit.

Zoom out: The 800 union-eligible nurses at Ascension Seton will join more than 2,500 Texas-based members of the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United, the country's largest nurses' union.

By the numbers: Texas has more than 215,000 registered nurses, earning an hourly mean wage of $38.04, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The other side: "Consistent with the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, we respect our nurses' right to organize themselves through union representation," an Ascension spokesperson told Axios. "We are united in our commitment to care for our community and those that we are privileged to serve."

The big picture: Unions are all the rage these days as the pandemic reversed a decades-long decline in labor union participation.

Between the lines: "More and more workers interested in unions is really a consequence of what happened with COVID," Michael Green, director of the Workplace Law Program at Texas A&M School of Law, told Axios.

  • "As we started to see more people realize they were that essential – you definitely see that with nurses, but also delivering packages at Amazon, or baristas at Starbucks — and they had concerns about how we're managing certain COVID issues, they started to see that maybe it might be more beneficial to have a collective voice representing their interests."

What's next: Ascension Seton nurses — who voted 72% in favor of joining a union — will form a bargaining committee, which will begin negotiating a first contract with hospital administration.

  • "The fact that over 70% voted (in support) is important because it means there's considerable discontent," said Julius Getman, an emeritus labor law professor at the University of Texas. "It's impossible to say that because they voted to unionize, they're going to be able to change things fundamentally — but the possibility is there really for the first time. If you're intelligent management, you'll try to placate them in some significant way so they continue to work."

What to watch: Expect to see nurses at other Central Texas hospitals start their own organizing efforts — and management to pull out union-busting stops.

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