Austin nurse wins largest hospital alliance in Texas

Kellen Gildersleeve, a birth nurse in Austin, just helped give birth to one of the biggest victories for the Texas labor movement in recent memory. Last week, nurses at Seton Medical Center in Ascension voted overwhelmingly to join the National Federation of Nurses, the nation’s largest nurse union. The union will cover about 800 nurses and is currently negotiating contracts with hospital management.

“I’m excited to be a part of something so historic,” Gildersleaf said. “We’ve been talking about this for a long time.”

Three years of poorly managed pandemic working conditions, combined with existing staffing issues, were the final straw for Gildersleeve and her hundreds of colleagues at the hospital. While some of the challenges these nurses hope to overcome are unique to healthcare, their victory is a watershed moment for workers across industries in Texas. Union representatives hope their victory at Ascension Seton will inspire more Texas nurses to organize.

According to Gildersleeve, working conditions in Ascension Seton have been deteriorating since 2017, when Seton Healthcare Family became Ascension Seton Medical Center, the national rebrand of Ascension Health, one of the largest nonprofit hospital operators in the country. part. Around the same time, the staff-to-patient ratio began to decline, and each nurse had to take on a heavier workload, she said. This trend worsened when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, leading to a surge in retirements of geriatric nurses and other nurses who turned to higher-paying travel nurse jobs.

“The pandemic has exacerbated the problem,” Gildersleaf said. “We’ve seen a drop in our staffing ratio and experienced nurses that we were able to keep long before COVID started. Then it just snowballed.”

Ultimately, the reluctance of hospitals to hire and retain enough people to handle patient burdens responsibly prompted nurses to organize.

“Whenever understaffed, nurses don’t have time to advocate for their patients in the way they’ve been taught,” explains Gildersleeve. “This will inevitably lead to safety issues because even experienced and intuitive nurses may miss something if they have to run to the next call.”

She added that Ascension Seton’s management did not want to see their nurses unionised. Before they started organizing, some of her colleagues even thought it was illegal to unionize in Texas. It’s a common misconception fueled by the state’s right-to-work law, which means workers don’t have to join a union that represents their workplace. Texas has one of the lowest union membership rates in the nation, with less than 4 percent of workers. According to Gildersleaf, hospital administrators have further muddled the issue by holding mandatory meetings with nurses, where they shared their concerns that unions, which they portray as a third party, could cause damage to workers and administrators. concerns about the issue.

“Everyone has to admit that in a southern place like Texas, people tend to be a bit anti-union, or they know little or nothing about unions, which is more impressive.”

But eventually, she said, “a lot of nurses saw through that.”

Two months after filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board, nurses voted 385 to 151 to unionize with the National Nurses Federation.

“We’re always excited when nurses vote to organize with us,” said National Nurses Federation President Jean Ross, adding that Texas organizers must overcome additional cultural and political challenges. “Everyone has to admit that in a southern place like Texas, people tend to be a bit anti-union, or they know little or nothing about unions, which is more impressive.”

Next, Austin nurses plan to conduct a survey of their colleagues to find out what they want to prioritize. They will elect their facility negotiating committee, which will then begin negotiating their first union contract with the medical center.

Ascension Seton Medical Center did not respond to a request for comment.Sincerely austin american statesmanthe hospital said: “Consistent with the moral and religious mandate of Catholic health care services, we respect the right of our nurses to organize themselves through union representation. We are united in our commitment to care for our community and those we are privileged to serve.”

Ross responded: “Those words are very nice. That’s what they are: words. We are driven by actions. If they want to deliver on those words, that’s great. We’ll notice right away because it’s unlike any other employer. “


In her experience, every nurses union has to have a tough fight at the negotiating table, and Ross sees no sign that Ascension Seton will be any more amiable than other employers.

“They’re all very, very similar. Our system is the same. Profit, profit, profit. Profit over patient. Profit from what’s best for nurses and other health care workers. That’s their main focus. This That’s why we clashed,” she said.

“Texas is just a very difficult state to unionize. It’s big news for them to win in Austin.”

Likewise, unionized nurses elsewhere—even elsewhere in Texas—have seen dramatic improvements in their workplaces. In 2010, about 2,000 nurses at several hospitals owned by medical giant HCA Healthcare in Brownsville, Corpus Christi, El Paso and McAllen joined the union, marking the last Texas nurses. A massive organizational wave.

“It really allows nurses to be part of a union,” said Sylvia Higgins, a neonatal intensive care nurse at Corpus Christi Medical Center. She said the negotiating committee at her facility has negotiated four contracts. Each contract has improved working conditions, including pay rises and more staff where needed. Higgins believes nurses are now on an equal footing with management, and hospital administrators need to listen to their concerns.

As for her fellow nurses in Austin, she said, “I’m happy for them. Texas is just a very difficult state to unionize. For them, winning in Austin is big news.”

The Ascension union’s successful push comes at a time when a new wave of labor-organizing movements is growing across the country. Most notably, Starbucks employees have won unions at dozens of stores across the U.S., including several in Texas. Three of the state’s largest newspapers also recently joined the union.

But in such a sprawling workplace—the union will represent about 800 nurses—successful union movements are rare in Texas. Many of the state’s largest unions are in manufacturing — such as oil refineries on the Gulf Coast and defense contractors in North Texas — and were formed during the heyday of organized labor in the mid-20th century. Since then, large-scale organizing has been rare in Texas and elsewhere in the South.

“It’s been a while,” admitted Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy, unable to recall the last time Texas workers won a new private sector union as big as Ascension. As it turns out, in the 21st century, only two unions as big as the Ascension nurses were formed, one in 2014 and the other in 2006, according to the National Labor Relations Board.

Since the 20th century, the labor movement has evolved to become less industrialized and male-dominated. Today, with more union members present in the healthcare industry, nurse unions have become an increasingly powerful part of the movement. In 2020, in the face of radical union sabotage, the National Nurses Federation united 1,800 nurses at a large North Carolina hospital. Earlier this month, 15,000 unionized nurses in Minnesota staged a three-day strike over understaffing, the largest private-sector strike in U.S. history.

About 17 percent of nurses in the U.S. are unionized, compared with just 2 percent in Texas. This may be changing.

Back in Austin, Kellen Gildersleeve rode high. The atmosphere at work has improved, and she wants to go to work even more. The response from nurses elsewhere sweetened the victory.

“Nurses from all over Texas have been reaching out to them with supportive messages, asking questions,” Gildersleeve said, and she hopes progress at Ascension Seton and interest from other hospitals will go hand in hand. “Right now we’re just fighting for the strongest first contract we can get. It’s critical to our future success and hopefully inspires other nurses to follow.”

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