One of the things we do at the Catholic Labor Network is monitoring labor relations at Catholic institutions. There’s a reason for this. Church doctrine teaches that workers have the right to organize in unions to engage in collective bargaining, but who’s going to listen to us if Catholic institutions don’t respect that teaching with their own employees?
With some 140 hospitals, as well as numerous nursing homes and other medical facilities, Ascension Health is one of the largest Catholic health care systems in the United States. But labor disputes have repeatedly put Ascension in the news over the past few years.
In Spring 2022, Ascension Health came to the attention of the Catholic Labor Network when nursing home workers represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) struck an Ascension-owned nursing home. It turned out that while Catholic Social Teaching calls for every worker to receive a living wage, many of these workers were earning the legal minimum.
But nursing home workers were hardly the only ones upset with their employer. Concerned about understaffing, nurses at a series of Ascension hospitals began to organize with National Nurses United. In late 2022 it happened at Ascension Seton in Austin, Texas. Soon thereafter it was a couple of hospitals in Wichita, Kansas, Ascension Via Christi and Ascension Via St. Joseph. More recently, nurses at Ascension St. Agnes hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, followed suit.
In each case, hospital management pulled its response from the for-profit corporate playbook rather than Catholic Social Teaching. They hired expensive “union avoidance” consultants to try and prevent their nurses from organizing, sometimes using unlawful tactics and ending up in front of the National Labor Relations Board facing Unfair Labor Practice charges.
The next step in the corporate playbook is usually to drag out negotiations for a first contract as long as possible to see if the workers lose interest. That seems to be what is happening now: workers have yet to extract a contract from Ascension at any of the four newly organized hospitals. The nurses are not losing interest, but they are losing patience. Nurses at the Texas and Kansas hospitals walked out on a short strike in early December.
There is a Catholic model for labor relations, and this is not it. The holy season of Christmas would be a wonderful time for Ascension’s corporate leadership to shake off their Wall Street values and lean into its Catholic Identity with a new approach to their workforce.