On Tuesday, 27 June 2023, hundreds of nurses organized with National Nurses United (NNU) walked out on strike at Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin (ASMCA) in Austin, Texas. Hundreds more struck at two other Ascension-owned hospitals in Wichita, Kansas. Over 2000 workers in total withheld their labor to demand safe staffing levels, better pay and improved working conditions from hospital executives sitting on cash reserves of over $18 billion.
Community members turned out in droves to support them. Among the supporters were members of many other union locals including UNITE-HERE Local 23, Restaurant Workers United, AFSCME 1624, ATU 1091, News Guild–CWA 32035, TSEU–CWA 6186, Austin EMS Association–CWA 6914, Education Austin, Air Line Pilots’ Association, United Workers of Integral Care–CWA 6154, and what seemed like half the membership of the IBEW 520 along with their 20-foot inflatable fat cat, complete with cigar and money bag. The line grew so dense that it eventually extended down the entire block. People grew hoarse from shouting, then others joined in to keep momentum going. There was not a moment of silence.
Background to the Strike
Nurses at ASMCA voted to authorize the strike by a 98% margin at the end of May after months of stalled negotiations with management. They initially won union recognition in September 2022 and began negotiating that November, but have yet to receive a fair contract offer. Chief among their concerns are short staffing and low pay. DSA asked many nurses why they were striking and every one responded first with “safe staffing.” They are demanding improved recruitment and retention practices to keep nurses at the bedside, and dignity and respect for themselves and their patients. The working conditions of nurses are the same conditions patients experience.
The nurses say that staff shortages have created unmanageable workloads and they cannot provide adequate care to their patients. Ascension’s poor labor practices have directly jeopardized nurses’ licenses and put patients’ lives in danger, leading to preventable deaths and a revolving door of nursing staff. The Bureau of Labor Statistics in April 2023 showed that there are over a million registered nurses who actively choose not to work in their licensed profession. Sandy Reding, NNU president and nurse, pointed out that, “There is no nursing shortage. There’s a shortage of nurses who want to work under these conditions.” One NNU nurse and Austin DSA comrade, Lisa L, explained that many nurses are locked into two-year contracts right out of school in order to get a signing bonus. They are treated so poorly on the job with no avenue for respite that as soon as their contract is up, they often quit nursing altogether. For herself however, she makes clear, “I’ve been a nurse for 16 years and I’m not going to stop fighting to make this profession better.”
Management Fails to Bargain and Fails Patients
Rather than bargain with the nurses in good faith, Catholic healthcare giant Ascension’s management has stalled and rejected union contract proposals. In return, nurses fought back with the greatest tool in the working class’ arsenal: the strike. They withheld their labor for 24 hours to demonstrate that the hospital does not run without them. Ascension hired agency nurses to scab at a supposed rate of around $300/hr, over eight times the average wage of their own nursing staff, and locked NNU nurses out for three days. On the picket line, word spread that not only were these scabs being paid exorbitant amounts to break the strike, but they had no idea where any of the supplies were stored!
ASMCA further jeopardized their patients and doctors in the name of crushing workers who dared to demand a say in how their workplace is run. The community was not enthused. One elderly woman named Bridgette was sitting at the supply table cutting bananas and donuts and handing out water to picketers. She said that when her late husband was in the ICU, the nurses at ASMCA were incredibly helpful and kind and made the best of a difficult time in her life. She simply wanted to return the favor and called on Ascension to follow their supposed Christian values by valuing the people they employ.
Strike Don’t Win Themselves
The strike was not a haphazard action. It was deliberate, it was disciplined, and it was coordinated, the culmination of years of organizing at the hospital. This organizing was made possible by the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and by NNU. Nurse and comrade Kellen G. shared that it was “the ultimate socialist trial by fire to organize a brand new union in Texas. The fact that Austin DSA and the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee had our back made the biggest difference.” Kellen and fellow nurses went through EWOC’s Foundational Training Series as part of their preparation for taking control over their workplace. “We have so much gratitude toward the many comrades who showed up to support our historic strike,” said Kellen. “It was an honor to share this day with you all.”
On the picket line, chants echoed off of nearby buildings. Hundreds of cars honked in support as they passed, notable because Austin has not historically been a hotbed of labor activism. Many aggregate drivers (trucks hauling rocks, gravel or sand – common in this city of endless construction) also honked in support, remarkable because that isn’t a sector of the industry in which the Teamsters have much strength in the region.
Amidst the joyous rebellion, one NNU staffer, Mallory, was hard at work reinvigorating nurses all day long. There were shifts organized to ensure a continuous flow of fresh energy to the line. NNU, DSA and others ensured there was sufficient water and food to keep everyone lively.
Fights like this are not won in a day. What the nurses showed us all is that every workplace is run by the workers and can be won by the workers. Nurses showed up on the morning of Wednesday, 28 June 2023, ready to work. Ascension would not let them in because they “weren’t on the list,” (i.e., they were locked out) but come Saturday, 1 July, they will be on the payroll and their struggle will continue.
Lessons for DSA
What the successful union recognition campaign and strike on Ascension shows is that the resurgent socialist labor strategy is working. By providing valuable training through EWOC, DSA has made steps toward becoming an organization of organizers – not just volunteers on an email list, but disciplined organizers ready to take the struggle to their workplaces and their neighborhoods.
The future of labor unions and the future of socialism are inextricably linked. Socialists bring a developed class struggle analysis to the labor movement which strengthens labor and informs socialism. If we commit ourselves to this kind of outward-facing mass work, we will make DSA a place that comrades focused on organizing their neighbors and co-workers can easily join and participate in. The socialist movement will be stronger for it.
When nurses did return to work, they were met with continued understaffing and hostility from management, plus the realization that the scab nurses, despite higher staffing ratios, had cared poorly for patients. The Austin Chronicle published a good follow up article.