The stalemate between the United Steelworkers (USW) 4-200 union – representing more than 1,700 striking nurses – and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) management continues after a Sept. 14 meeting concluded without an agreement to end the standoff, now in its second month.
Thursday’s talks, which included federal mediators, marked the first in more than four weeks since the strike began in early August. However, as the sides emerged from the bargaining session, there did not seem to be much reason for optimism as the war of words continued.
The union has demanded around-the-clock negotiations.
“We remain frustrated at the refusal of RWJBarnabas’ corporate executives to engage in round-the-clock bargaining – or even to agree to another bargaining date,” Judy Danella, a longtime RWJUH nurse and president of the USW Local 4-200 union, in a statement following Thursday’s talks. “We will only reach a contract that is fair to front-line nurses and improves safety for patients if the corporate executives at RWJBarnabas agree to sit across the negotiating table from us and bargain in good faith.”
RWJBarnabas quickly pushed back against that assertion.
“The union’s claims about the hospital’s unwillingness to participate in ‘round-the-clock’ negotiations are bogus. The dates and length of sessions are set by the federal mediators, not the hospital or the union,” Wendy Gottsegen, RWJUH spokesperson, said in a statement Thursday in response to the union. “The union knows this full well but chooses to misrepresent the facts, once again.”
Gottsegen noted that the parties attended the mediation sessions called for by the two federal mediators who have jurisdiction over the strike.
“The session lasted six hours and was conducted by the mediators. During the session, the hospital proposed two options to the union for settlement:
“The first options offered the union the opportunity to return to work and submit the dispute to binding arbitration – which the hospital first proposed in July – with the arbitrator having the authority to set terms for a new collective bargaining agreement between the parties,” Gottsegen explained. “The second option was the hospital’s Aug. 2 proposal to the union, which the union never submitted to its membership for a vote. The union advised the hospital that it was going to take both options back to its membership for a vote. The hospital is to hear back from the union on Tues., Sept. 19.”
This week, on his “Ask Governor Murphy” radio show – produced by WBGO, WHYY, and WNYC and hosted by WNYC Senior Reporter Nancy Solomon – Murphy was asked about the situation.
“I’m not happy,” Murphy said on Wednesday. “We’re a proud pro-labor state. There’s no group of workers that are more heroic than our frontline health care workers. And the fact that this is going on without resolution is, in my opinion, unacceptable.”
His comments came before Thursday’s talks yielded no immediate deal, but Murphy was somewhat encouraged to see meetings happening, in the least, and hoped they continued.
“That’s something that we have been encouraging and, in the vernacular, ‘get into a room, lock the door, throw the key away, and get a deal,’” Murphy told Solomon and the caller who asked about the strike. “I know collective bargaining is hard and I know – please God – both sides enter that in a spirit of goodwill. But, at the end of the day, another baseball phrase – instead of tie goes to the runner, tie goes to the worker. We are a proud – as I mentioned – labor state. These are heroes. Let’s get this thing resolved.”
Murphy stressed that he did not have any visibility into the specific levels of the negotiation, besides the fact that staffing levels have been an issue at the center of the acrimony.
“But get this done,” the governor said. “And get it done now.”
In addition to the staffing issue, the union has also criticized hospital leadership for the use of replacement nurses and for discontinuing striking nurses’ health benefits as of Sept. 1.
“We agree with Gov. Murphy’s statement that we should ‘get in the room’ and keep negotiating until we come to a fair agreement and thank the governor for his strong comments,” said Danella. “Yet today demonstrates that RWJBarnabas’ corporate executives care more about profits than they do the livelihoods of nurses who put their lives on the line during the pandemic – as well as the safety of the patients we serve.”
“RWJUH is doing everything it can to end this strike. The strike is taking hundreds of thousands of dollars per day out of the pockets of our nurses and their families,” said Gottsegen. “The cost of the strike is too great for it to continue indefinitely.”
“We remain ready and willing to engage in continuous negotiations until we reach a fair contract,” said Danella. “We only wish RWJBarnabas’ corporate executives felt the same way.”
“We urge the Steel Workers to prioritize the best interests of our nurses and their families,” Gottsegen closed RWJUH’s statement with. “The strike must end.”