- After walking the picket line for just shy of four months, more than 1,700 nurses at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital reached a tentative agreement on Friday with hospital management to return to work.
- The nurses began striking at RWJUH’s New Brunswick facility on Aug. 4 in protest of insufficient staffing ratios, sick time and insurance benefits. The hospital has spent more than $120 million on replacement labor since the nurses went on strike, according to the hospital.
- The deal, which includes enforceable safe staffing standards, now heads to union members for ratification, according to the nurses’ union, United Steelworkers Local 4-200.
The strike at RWJUH is part of a broader wave of healthcare organizing activity, including at least seventeen other work stoppages and pickets that involved more than 400 workers at U.S. hospitals since June, according to a Healthcare Dive tracker.
The strikes come after the COVID-19 pandemic fueled a national healthcare labor shortage and increased burnout among nurses and hospital workers.
Although there have been several high-profile strikes this year, including a walkout of 75,000 workers at Kaiser Permanente, the stoppage at RWJUH was notably long. The strike was almost double the duration of the longest healthcare strike logged last year, which lasted 10 weeks at Kaiser Permanente facilities in Northern California.
Tensions on both sides ran high during the strike. RWJUH cut access to health and wellness plans for striking nurses beginning in September, forcing them to rely on the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) for benefits. Despite the hospital including federal mediators in the negotiation process, nurses voted to reject at least two proposals to end the strike offered by RWJUH.
On Sep. 18, a New Jersey Superior Court judge issued a temporary restraining order against the union, barring striking nurses from blocking entrances and exits to parking decks at RWJUH after the hospital claimed the union’s organizing was disrupting operations.
The nurses’ strike at RWJUH has also garnered national attention, with state and federal lawmakers weighing in on the negotiation process.
Most recently, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who had been reluctant to weigh in on the negotiations, and his chief of staff met with union leadership via Zoom before Thanksgiving to discuss steps necessary to solidify a deal.
In October, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., held a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee field meeting to question union and management about the strike.
“The reasons for these departures are understaffing, poor working conditions and the corresponding fear of harming patients,” said Patricia Pittman, professor of health workforce equity at the Milken Institute of Public Health at George Washington University, during the field hearing. “Nurses’ concerns over staffing have been borne out by 20 years of research outcomes associated with low staffing levels including patient mortality.”
Neither party has released specifics about the proposed deal. However, both urged striking nurses to attend informational sessions about the deal in efforts to ratify the contract.
“We encourage our nurses to attend these meetings and vote at the ratification sessions,” said Wendy Gottsegen, RWJUH spokesperson, in a statement. “The resolution reflects our shared goals of providing the highest-quality patient care and creating a safe and supportive working environment for our nurses.”
Judy Danella, president of USW Nurses Local 4-200, reiterated Gottsegen in her own statement.
“This contract sets the necessary staffing ratios so that we can spend more time with each of our patients and keep ourselves safe on the job,” Danella said. “This agreement was hard-fought, but our sacrifice ultimately paid off with a fair contract that addresses nurses’ most urgent concerns. The local bargaining committee unequivocally recommends ratification.”