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Nurses’ union at Austin’s Ascension Seton Medical Center ratifies historic first contract

A group of nurses gathered outside the Ascension Seton Medical Center on Dec. 6, 2023, in Austin hold strike signs from the National Nurses Organizing Committee and a large banner with the Texas flag printed on it, along with the words, "Don't Mess with Texas Nurses."
Michael Minasi
KUT News
Nurses strike at Austin's Ascension Seton Medical Center on Dec. 6, 2023.

The nurses’ union at Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin has voted to ratify its first contract, the National Nurse Organizing Committee/National Nurses United announced March 5.

The announcement comes after more than a year of contract negotiations and organizing efforts by hundreds of registered nurses, who voted to unionize in September 2022. The group also participated in two strikes in June and December to bring attention to demands including guaranteed lower nurse-to-patient staffing ratios.

The contract, which NNOC said in a news release was “overwhelmingly” voted through by the union, includes provisions the union believes will improve patient care and retention of nurses. The agreement requires a minimum ratio of one RN for every two patients in the intensive care unit, neonatal intensive care unit and labor and delivery unit. In the emergency department, at least one RN will be required to work for every four patients.

“We are so proud of this contract that sets enforceable standards for safe staffing, which has always been our number one priority,” said Zetta Hackleman, an RN in the perioperative services unit, in the release from NNOC. “This contract holds Ascension accountable to enforcing safe nurse-to-patient ratios, which we know saves patient lives and boosts nurse recruitment and retention.”

Taylor Critendon, an ICU nurse who has been active in the union, said the inclusion of safe staffing ratios is what made her ready to sign the contract — and she credited the nurses' willingness to strike as the key factor in securing those provisions.

"The lingering threat of a potential third strike — I think that was always on their minds, and I think that was what really pushed them to give us these nurse-to-patient ratios," she told KUT.

According to NNOC, the contract also includes a wage scale based on years of experience, with an average 11% increase in compensation among RNs. Union nurses say this provision should help attract experienced nurses with more than 10 years of experience, whose ranks have dwindled at the hospital. Additionally, monthly meetings between RNs and management to discuss “ongoing patient care concerns” will be required.

More than 1,100 registered nurses are covered by the contract, according to NNU, including residents and fellows, who were only recently folded into negotiations in January. The agreement is set to continue through March 2027.

"We are pleased Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin registered nurses have ratified their initial RN contract," a representative for Ascension told KUT in an emailed statement. "We have a contract in place that is collaborative, respectful of the diverse needs of our registered nurses and that will create a solid foundation for a healthy and respectful working relationship. We thank our nurses for voting to accept this fair and equitable contract and are eager to move forward together as we continue to care for our community and put the patient at the center of all we do."

Nurses from the union said they hoped their success would inspire health care workers in other workplaces to consider organizing, especially in Central Texas. Because Texas is a right-to-work state, union membership cannot legally be a condition of employment, which can make union organizing more challenging.

"We do hope that this brings hope to other nurses and other health care workers that you really can make change," Critendon said. "We're hoping that they join us. There is so much strength in numbers."

Nurses at three other Ascension hospitals in Wichita, Kansas, and Baltimore, Maryland, are currently negotiating their first union contracts.

Olivia Aldridge is KUT's health care reporter. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @ojaldridge.
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