Updated June 29
Strikes at three Ascension hospitals were held Tuesday by roughly 2,000 registered nurses and and ran a single day.
However, the Catholic giant has now made good on its word to lock out the union workers until Saturday morning to satisfy the four-day-minimum contracts it signed for temporary staff to keep the facilities running.
National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNOC/NNU), which represents the nurses, condemned the "punitive attempts by management at union-busting" and said its members are ready to return to work whenever Ascension allows it.
About 2,000 registered nurses are slated to launch a one-day strike Tuesday morning and, upon completion, will be locked out of their Ascension hospitals for an additional three days, according to statements from their union and the major Catholic health system.
The nurses are employed at Ascension Seton Medical Center in Austin, Texas, and Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph Hospital and Ascension Via Christi St. Francis Hospital, both in Wichita, Kansas.
The demonstrations pertain to contract negotiations and filed complaints that Ascension is insufficiently staffing the facilities, according to statements from the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNOC/NNU). Barring a last-minute deal, the strike is set to be the largest among nurses in Texas and Kansas history, the union said.
“While Ascension claims to provide ‘spiritually-centered holistic care,’ nurses’ experiences reflect the reality of Ascension’s hypocrisy,” Nichlous Whitehead, a unionized nurse in St. Francis Hospital’s surgery unit, said in a statement. “Union nurses are striking to enforce, through safe staffing protections in our contracts, Ascension's own mission to ‘sustain and improve the health of individuals and communities.’”
In statements given to reporters, Ascension said the hospitals would remain “open and well-prepared to continue to provide patient-centered, holistic care during this unfortunate strike” with no disruptions.
That plan, the system said, involves contracting with a staffing agency “that specializes in work stoppage events” to fill the gaps with credentialed registered nurses. The contracts require a minimum commitment of four working days, meaning that any nurses who leave their post Tuesday would not be able to return to their shifts until July 1.
“Notwithstanding this disheartening strike, we will continue to negotiate in good faith to come to a mutually beneficial agreement on an initial contract that respects the human dignity and rights of all,” Ascension said in a statement. “We look forward to returning the focus to resolving issues at the bargaining table and reaching agreement on a fair and reasonable collective bargaining agreement for our registered nurses.”
NNOC/NNU condemned the effective three-day lockout as “a deliberate ploy to intimidate nurses from speaking out and demanding action on the conditions they decided to strike over.”
In a statement, unionized registered nurse Kris Fuentes, who works in Ascension Seton Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit, called the staffing decision “despicable” and “a clear sign Ascension would rather use its vast resources to delay improvement than to invest in the care our patients and our communities deserve with appropriate staffing.”
The unions at all three hospitals are relatively new, with workers having voted to join NNOC/NNU in September (Ascension Seton Medical Center, 900 nurses), November (Ascension Via Christi St. Francis Hospital, 650 nurses) and March (Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph Hospital, 300 nurses).
Ninety percent or more of the represented nurses across each facility voted to authorize the strike. The union has outlined staffing levels, compensation and retention as bargaining points but has not released specific demands to the public amid negotiations.
Ascension is among the nation’s largest nonprofit health systems with more than 2,600 care sites, including over 140 hospitals.
It posted a $5.7 billion net gain in fiscal 2021, but, like many major systems saw its numbers turn red in 2022 with a $1.8 billion net loss. Part of the downturn was a nearly $2.1 billion year-over-year increase in operating expenses, $1.2 billion of which specifically came from total salaries, wages and benefits expenses.
Media reports over the past year have called into question the Catholic system’s staffing and cost-cutting practices. A key senator has also pushed the nonprofit for answers on whether its for-profit investment activities were pulling support away from Ascension’s core patient care.