NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The nurses of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) have agreed to return to work, ending a months-long battle over staffing issues.
Their union, United Steelworkers Local 4-200, voted to accept the proposal for a new three-year contract, which was submitted for consideration in November.
The results of the vote were announced on December 15, the 133rd day of the strike. The work stoppage began when approximately 1,700 nurses walked off the job on August 4.
“We fought long and hard,” said Judith Danella, president of the union local. “[The hospital] made us stay out there.”
It’s still unclear exactly when the strikers will return to their jobs, but Danella told New Brunswick Today she expects the nurses to be back in the workplace in “early January.”
The strike was at least the second major labor action here in New Brunswick to capture the national spotlight this year. As we reported, three unions at Rutgers University held a strike in May that lasted five days and effectively shut down much of the university.
The nurses at RWJUH, which is affiliated with Rutgers, were gearing up for a difficult contract negotiation at that time. Their prior contract expired June 30, but they continued working under its terms for another 35 days before leaving to strike.
It was the first time since 2006 that the hospital’s nurses went on strike. That time, the strike lasted less than a month.
According to Danella, 88% of her union’s members voted in favor of the new agreement, which stipulates the same “safe staffing” ratios as requested by the union.
Safe staffing is a term for the ratio of nurses to patients in the different departments of the hospital, and it’s become a hot topic in the field of healthcare policy, thanks in large part to the awareness brought about by the strike.
In October, US Senator Bernie Sanders visited New Brunswick to host a field hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, focused exclusively on the issue of hospital staffing ratios.
On December 1, the union’s leadership announced they had agreed to the terms of a new contract with the hospital, calling it a “a historic agreement… that includes enforceable safe staffing standards in our collective bargaining agreement for the first time.”
But the deal required ratification from a majority of the local’s rank-and-file members. The nurses began voting on December 14 and finished the process at 4pm on December 15.
The nurses’ vote marks the conclusion of a turbulent chapter for the hospital and its nurses.
“We are pleased with the outcome of today’s vote and look forward to welcoming our nurses back home,” said RWJUH President Alan Lee.
“The new contract provides for staffing standards that support the highest levels of care provided at academic medical centers, such as RWJUH, and offers a collaborative platform and process for nurses and leadership to address staffing issues and concerns together.”
RWJUH spokespersons declined to release a copy of the agreement.
“We are not releasing the agreement but you’re welcome to ask the union if they’ll provide it,” said Steve Sandberg, a Vice President with MikeWorldWide, a company RWJUH hired to handle public relations throughout the strike.
Danella and Ceisler Media, a public relations company hired by the union, did not immediately respond to multiple requests for a copy of the contract.
Molly O'Brien started writing for New Brunswick Today as a freelance reporter in February 2013.
Molly writes stories on government, arts, free events, bilingual events, education and more.
Molly graduated from Rutgers University with a B.A. in French Linguistics and Linguistics, where she also studied Writing and Journalism. Molly also graduated Rutgers Law School.
She is open to any suggestions for stories or tips. You may contact her via text at 732-743-8993.