Austin Catholic hospital nurses seek to unionize, face intense union busting

AUSTIN, Tex. — People across the country are no strangers to the workplace stresses of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially as major employers and large corporations have sought to maintain their profits and consequently placed the burden upon employees. Perhaps no segment of society has felt the impact as greatly as healthcare workers. Nurses especially have taken the full impact of the pandemic, facing massive turnovers, shortages, and unsafe staffing conditions.

In the wake of such conditions of being overworked, undervalued, and facing burnout, many healthcare workers have left the industry altogether, while others now seek the protections offered by being members of a strong union. Therefore, it came as no surprise as nurses at Ascension Seton, one of the major hospital systems in Austin, announced their intention to unionize. The decision was greeted enthusiastically by healthcare workers and others watching the labor situation closely in this capital city of Texas. Labor leaders, progressive clergy, and many elected officials have applauded the move.

Yet one major player is not on board with the Ascension Seton nurses, namely, the hospital itself.

For those who identify strongly with the social doctrine of the Catholic Church there was a sense of shock in learning that a Catholic institution would openly oppose its nurses in their plan to organize. After all, the Church teaches that it “fully supports the right of workers to form unions or other associations to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions.” Nevertheless, the efforts aimed at stopping the unionizing of Austin’s Ascension Seton nurses are nothing less than a professionally coordinated attack on the rights of workers promoted by the Church itself. Ascension’s actions toward its nurses show its institutional hypocrisy and stand as an affront to the people of central Texas.

It seemed not all that long ago—though it’s now approaching 25 years—that the Catholic Diocese of Austin was called out by members of its faithful for a violation it perceived in Church teaching. At the time, Seton Hospital, prior to becoming part of the Ascension network of Catholic hospitals, had been under the auspices of the Daughters of Charity, an order of nuns, for 112 years. In the late 1990s the diocese, under the leadership of the late Bishop John McCarthy, a well-known promoter of Catholic social doctrine, supported the establishment of a “clinic within a clinic” at Seton to provide women’s healthcare, which would have provided a broad range of contraceptive options and other basic women’s healthcare.

The plan was ultimately defeated, though Catholic ethicists had been consulted, and the clinic, while on the hospital property, would have stood as a separate entity from Seton. The late bishop retired shortly following the events that transpired, which included a less-than-favorable ad limina visit with then Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI.

So where are the voices of the faithful at this time? Are we seeing politicization so deep within the Church that it now ignores its own teaching on the basis of right-wing political allegiances, or is it that by its immersion into the world of capitalism the Ascension network itself has lost its identity and ethos as an institution whose work is to care for the poor and vulnerable? Ascension’s own mission statement proclaims that it is “rooted in the loving ministry of Jesus as healer,” and committed to serve “all persons who are poor and vulnerable” as “advocates for a compassionate and just society….”

Yet as recently as November 2021, STAT News issued an unfavorable investigative report claiming that Ascension operates more like a billion-dollar private equity operation than a ministry serving the needs of the most vulnerable among us. The report showed that as Ascension’s profits soared from its investment income, its charity care stayed about the same. STAT quoted Alan Sager, Boston University professor of health law, policy, and management, as saying, “If you want to imagine an activity at the opposite end of something charitable, you might well focus on a company that makes money by squeezing blood from a stone.” Indeed reports abound of patients in the Ascension Seton ER being asked to make payment while lying on gurneys or hooked up to tubes.

Ascension Seton’s dealing with its nurses this summer as they prepare to unionize also shows the lengths the system will take to maintain its profits and control, as well as its entrenchment in anti-union activities that fly in the face of Catholic social teaching. Thus far Ascension Seton nurses have met intense union-busting activities such as around-the-clock mandatory captive audience meetings. Ascension’s labor relations executive is a former vice president of the infamous “union avoidance” firm Adams Nash Haskell & Sheridan (ANHS). Unionization leaders have reportedly been disciplined for lawfully protected activities such as speaking to their colleagues about the union in non-work areas on non-work time. Some have reportedly faced threats of arrest or termination for lawfully returning to the workplace on off-time to hand out flyers to fellow nurses.

Still, the Austin Ascension Seton nurses press forward and continue to seek broad community support. Just last week a panel of nurses addressed an outdoor pro-labor gathering seeking greater awareness and action on the part of politically active Austinites. However, a glaring lack of support thus far exists from the entity that should care most that Ascension Seton is violating the spirit of Catholic social doctrine—the Church itself. While the Catholic Labor Network (CLN) supports the nurses’ attempts to organize, the local Church, the Diocese of Austin, has yet to make any statement whatsoever. The kind of silence heard from the Church also reflects the failure of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to make a statement of support for the PRO Act, legislation designed to protect workers’ rights to organize, which faces an uphill challenge as it moves to the U.S. Senate. The call is now upon the Catholic faithful and all stakeholders in Austin to write to its Catholic bishop in support of the nurses of Ascension Seton.

The final word on the Austin Ascension Seton nurses’ unionization drive has not yet been spoken as the nurses prepare to vote on the issue. With the efforts mounted by the hospital, it is almost certain that they will face a tough battle. Regardless of the outcome, it would be tragic to forget that an institution claiming to be part of a Church, which in its own teaching promotes the rights of workers to organize, has failed to follow those very teachings. By ignoring the outcry of those who labor, the Catholic Church itself shows that criticisms leveled against it by a long line of socialists and progressives are still valid in that rather than promoting freedom from oppression the Church—at least by its silence, and at most by the overt actions of its largest healthcare institution in the U.S.—lends its support to those who would keep humanity enslaved.


Dan Wright
Dan Wright

Dan Wright is an activist from Austin, Texas, who writes on topics of social justice, religion, disability, and education issues.