Those who are familiar with Catholic theology will have heard of the “seven deadly sins” enumerated by Pope Gregory I — pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth, all dire moral failings that are thought to lead to further transgressions. As the Bible says, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24). It’s ironic, then, that the highly paid executives running the Ascension Catholic hospital network have so thoroughly embraced the sin of greed.
In 2021, Ascension — which runs 139 hospitals in 19 different states — reported net income of more than $6.4 billion and $19.5 billion in cash reserves. As a nonprofit hospital chain, it is not required to pay federal taxes. Ascension executives also run an investment company on the side that manages more than $41 billion, and a private equity firm worth $1 billion. Despite the company’s wealth, Ascension has consistently chosen to close hospitals serving low-income neighborhoods and relocate its facilities to wealthier neighborhoods (so much for “blessed are you who are poor”), according to a 2022 investigation by The Wall Street Journal.
Hospital management has also long refused to invest its considerable financial resources back into its workforce, which has led to chronic understaffing. Two-thousand registered nurses at three Ascension facilities in Austin, Texas, and Wichita, Kansas, went on a historic one-day strike this week to change that.
They already made history last year, when 900 nurses at the Ascension Seton Medical Center in Austin voted to join the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNOC/NNU), thereby creating the largest private-sector nursing union in the state. It was a massive accomplishment in a so-called “right-to-work” state governed by anti-labor politicians.
Two months later, 650 nurses in Kansas followed their lead, joining the NNOC/NNU to form Wichita’s first union at a private-sector hospital, which happens to be the largest hospital in the city. Three-hundred more at Wichita’s Christi St. Joseph Hospital voted to join the union in March 2023.
All three units have been locked in contract negotiations with Ascension for months and have had a difficult time getting the hospital to acknowledge their concerns. Safe staffing levels have been a key bone of contention between the union and Ascension management. Fewer nurses on staff means a heavier workload for workers as well as a decreased quality of care for patients. Hospitals that slash staffing budgets save money but inflict physical and emotional distress on employees. Nurses around the country have been vocal about this issue since even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and exacerbated the situation, and it’s only gotten worse. The June 27 strike came after Ascension management repeatedly dismissed nurses’ concerns over staffing and retention.
“Ascension management pushed nurses to this position by failing to listen to or implement our solutions to address the staffing crisis,” said Monica Gonzalez, a registered nurse in the neurology unit at Ascension Seton Medical Center. “Ascension management has the power to settle a strong contract now, if they are serious about staffing up and improving nurses’ ability to provide safe patient care.”
Management did not react well to the strike. News broke later that day that Ascension plans to lock out the striking nurses for an additional three days. The strike did not come as a surprise to management. In fact, when nurses go on strike, they always provide their hospitals with at least 10 days notice so that alternative arrangements can be made for patient care. After each of the three locations voted overwhelmingly to authorize the strike, they delivered their strike notices to Ascension’s St. Louis, Missouri, headquarters earlier this month. The NNOC/NNU nurses are eager to get back to their patients, so the proposed lockout seems to be a purely punitive measure.
“Nurses are energized and united after yesterday’s strike,” said Sara Wilson, a registered nurse at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis in Wichita, in an interview with Truthout. “At the same time, we’re frustrated with this nonprofit organization who is willing to lock out their own nurses — the staff [who] has been caring for the community for years and wants to care for our patients today,” she added. “We’re hoping that Ascension can come to the table and actually offer us some decent counters on the proposals they’ve had for months.”
Nurses are hopeful that bargaining sessions with Ascension scheduled through the end of August will yield results.
“The strike was so empowering,” said Vanessa Villarreal, a registered nurse at Ascension Seton Medical Center in Austin. “I’m looking forward to winning a strong first contract so that I can leave work without feeling like I got dragged through the ringer and to inspire other nurses to stand up against the hospital industry.”