'One day longer, one day stronger': Ascension Seton nurses strike a second time this year
Nurses marched out of Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin (ASMCA) for the second time this year to strike on Wednesday morning, forming a picket line outside the hospital along 38th Street.
National Nurses United (NNU), the union representing 800 nurses at the hospital, began negotiations with hospital management for its first contract just over a year ago. Since then, nurses have picketed through all manner of weather: pouring rain for a demonstration in April, scorching heat for an initial strike in June, and now a chilly, 42-degree morning.
“What a beautiful day for a strike!” said Rick Levy, president of the state labor federation Texas AFL-CIO, at the demonstration on Wednesday.
Speeches from Levy and leaders from other unions who joined the rally in solidarity with NNU centered on the need for persistence as nurses move into their second year of negotiations. “One day longer, one day stronger!” was the call-and-response chant that ran through the event.
Over the course of negotiations, a primary focus of NNU has been to raise nurse staffing levels at ASMCA. The union has long said nurses are stretched thin with too many patients under their care. Addressing shortages continued to be a central demand during the December strike, when nurses specifically called out staffing levels in the labor and delivery unit. NNU said in a statement that nurses in the unit with less than two years of experience are being assigned leadership responsibilities typically given to experienced staff.
Union members also hoped to put pressure on the hospital to address shortages of essential equipment and supplies. They said blankets, hospital gowns, thermometers and functional IV pumps were all in short supply, and also noted functionality issues with hospital-issued phones. Monica Gonzalez, a nurse in the neurology unit at ASMCA and a member of the union’s bargaining team, said repeated requests to managers related to supply issues have gone unanswered, as have the “assignment despite objection” forms she has submitted to formally protest working conditions.
“I’ve filled out those forms more times than I can count, and I know they read them, but they’re not being addressed,” Gonzalez said. “[They say,] ‘Oh, we’ll bring it up in next month’s meeting, we’ll bring it up in next month’s meeting. And the people that suffer are the patients.”
Another longtime nurse at the hospital, Zetta Hackleman, said she felt equipment shortages had escalated since the union’s first strike in June.
“They had more IV pumps during the summer,” Hackleman said. “They have fewer IV pumps currently, and a lot of the ones we do have aren’t completely functional. And those are needed to deliver life-saving fluids to our patients.”
On Nov. 22, NNU gave ASMCA advance notice of the one-day strike. The union is legally required to give at least 10 days notice in order to give the hospital time to find alternative staffing during the work stoppage event. Ascension released a statement on Nov. 28 saying it had secured temporary nurses through a staffing agency to work the strike, and was prepared to give patients quality care.
In a repeat of events from this summer, the hospital system said nurses who participated in the strike would be prohibited from returning to work until the temporary staff’s four-day contracts were complete. Four days, Ascension said, was the minimum contract required by the staffing agency it secured.
“We would prefer not to have to utilize these extended contracted services, particularly given the current challenges the healthcare industry, including our ministry, is facing, but we must make every provision for ensuring the health and safety of our patients, families, providers and associates,” the statement said.
Ascension also said it was disappointed in the union’s decision to strike, and that it would continue to bargain in good faith with NNU.
“We believe that differences are best resolved respectfully at the bargaining table, and look forward to continuing to work together to reach agreement on a contract for our registered nurses,” the hospital system said.
Nurses from the union called Ascension’s three-day lockout of participating nurses a union-busting tactic and attempted to return to the hospital for work on Thursday morning. Security met the nurses at the door and blocked them from entering.
"I'm prepared to do it as many times as we have to," nurse Kristine Kittelson, who led the coalition Thursday morning, told KUT. "Ascension is going to learn that the longer that they sit on their hands and drag their feet with our contract, the more power we build."
In addition to the group at ASMCA, nurses at two Ascension hospitals in Wichita also went on strike. NNU said around 2,000 nurses participated between the three hospitals.