UPDATE: Sep. 15, 2023: In the Sept. 14 bargaining session, RWJUH proposed two previously-issued solutions for settlement. Union representatives have agreed to take the options to membership for a vote, however, Judy Danella, president of United Steelworkers Local 4-200, told Healthcare Dive by email that neither proposal “really addresses safe staffing as we want it." The union is expected to respond to RWJUH by Sept. 19.
Nurses and hospital administrators are headed back to the bargaining table in New Brunswick, New Jersey on Thursday for the first time in nearly a month as the strike at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital enters its fortieth day.
The strike at RWJUH is part of a broader wave of organizing activity, including at least seven other work stoppages and pickets that involved more than 400 workers at U.S. hospitals since June, according to a Healthcare Dive strike tracker. The strikes come after the COVID-19 pandemic fueled a national healthcare labor shortage and increased burnout among nurses and hospital workers.
Like the RWJUH negotiations, the majority of strikes this summer have centered around worker and union concerns with safe staffing levels and pay.
However, unlike other pickets and strikes — which have lasted a handful of days — the ongoing work stoppage at RWJUH is the longest ongoing healthcare strike this summer.
Judy Danella, President of United Steelworkers Local 4-200, a union which represents the nurses, said she hopes the upcoming Sept. 14 bargaining session will be the last.
“It is time to settle the strike and return back to normality,” Danella told Healthcare Dive over email, adding that the union is “deeply committed” to reaching a deal that brings RWJUH’s more than 1,700 striking nurses back to work.
Wendy Gottsegen, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital spokesperson, echoed the sentiment in a statement shared with Healthcare Dive announcing the mediation session.
“RWJUH has remained steadfast from the very beginning in its desire to reach a resolution as soon as possible with USW 4-200 ... We hope the union shares our objective to return to the negotiating table with the goal of ending this strike immediately,” Gottsegen said.
The nurses first authorized a strike in July, after failing to negotiate a new contract during bargaining sessions that began in April. Nurses walked off the job on Aug. 4, citing unsafe staffing levels and insufficient pay as primary concerns, in addition to reining in health insurance costs.
Despite holding multiple bargaining sessions since the nurses announced an intent to strike, including two sessions with a federal mediator, the parties have remained at an impasse since Aug. 16, according to statements from RWJUH.
Both sides made concessions, but ultimately the previous talks failed to resolve the strike. According to Danella, the hospital’s proposed staffing guidelines fell short of union expectations, and she told the New Jersey Monitor that RWJUH would not commit to “enforceable nurse-to-patient ratios.”
RWJUH published a document refuting public statements made by the union and has pushed back on claims the hospital held up negotiations by failing to bargain in good faith. A RWJUH spokesperson told Healthcare Dive that the hospital has attended every bargaining session, even those that lasted nearly 24 hours.
As negotiations stalled, both the hospital and nurses suffered.
The 965-bed hospital, which is operated by RWJBarnabas Health, says it’s spent $45 million as of Sept. 7 on a team of 1,000 replacement nurses contracted through U.S. Nursing.
Beginning this month, striking nurses have temporarily lost access to health and wellness plans, and instead had to enroll in COBRA to receive benefits.
Pressure has mounted on both sides to resolve the conflict. Last month, the union called upon New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to actively support the union. Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., wrote to RWJ Barnabas CEO Mark Manigan and urged him to reach a swift deal with the union that prioritized safe staffing. Last weekend, striking nurses rallied outside Manigan's suburban home.
Strikes at other hospitals in RWJUH’s metro region have resulted in enforceable nurse-to-patient ratios, said Rebecca Givan, associate professor of labor studies and employment relations and co-director of the center for work and health at Rutgers University.
In January, 7,000 nurses represented by the New York State Nurses Association staged a three-day strike and successfully reached an agreement on enforceable nurse-to-staff ratios at two New York City hospitals, Montefiore and Mount Sinai.
Should the union negotiate a successful contract tomorrow, Danella told Healthcare Dive that “the industry wide implication would be [that] more hospitals would demand safe staffing. Solidarity has shown a lot of power in the negotiations.”
Givan agreed, saying it was “very clear” from the New York and New Jersey negotiations that staffing is the number one priority for nurses. She added that organizing activity may tick up industry wide as strikes prove to be an effective bargaining tool.
“Successful strikes are contagious,” Givan said.