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Nurses’ strike in New Brunswick, NJ

Report from the front

Sam Friedman reports on a nurses’ strike in New Brunswick, NJ. over oppressive working conditions, including unsafe staffing levels.

The second large strike in a few months is taking place in New Brunswick. In April, it was the workers at Rutgers University. Since August 4, 1,700 nurses at RWJBarnabas Hospital have been on strike. (At the end of the month, the hospital cut off the nurses’ health insurance payments.)

Their top issue is adequate staffing so patients can do well and nurses can have lives. In the many times I have been at their picket lines in the last month, their calls for safe staffing levels dominate their chants. When I talk with nurses on the line, they give example after example of unsafe and unsustainable working conditions. One ICU nurse told me that they had four patients per nurse at the ICU during COVID-19. Another striker said patient load varied from one to two to one to three (pre-strike), though if a nurse gets sick or is on vacation, the ratio is even worse. Another nurse told me of occasions when she was the only nurse at an ICU station, handling admissions when two separate alarms went off and she had to handle two critical emergencies at once. For some ICU cases, the nurses said, it should be one nurse per patient.

Nurses also report untenable working conditions. A striking nurse told me that supervisors bully the workers a lot, and nothing happens when people complain about that. Another nurse (from a different unit), told me, “Sometimes, we want to help a patient, but our body is too sore and tired so we can’t.” She later told me, “I used to go home, watch TV and do other things, and then sleep. Now, I go home and collapse asleep.”

In a similar anecdote, one nurse told me about how they went to a manager to ask for better staffing, and the manager responded, “Get over your COVID hang-up.” This was said to a nurse—a group of workers whom the world hailed as heroes in 2020 are now, in 2023, being harassed, overworked, and told to get over their COVID hang-up.

The striking nurses exhibit a mix of racial and gender diversity, and I have had extended conversations with Filipino, Black, and Asian nurses, as well as white ones. They do have two things in common: All of the strikers are part of USW Local 4-200 and everyone is outraged at how their employer has treated them and their patients.

Besides adequate staffing, other demands include a pay increase and a cap on what they have to pay for health insurance. Since they are part of the Steelworkers Union, they are actively supported by other members of the USW who are working on construction projects for the hospital. These workers continue working under their contracts, but take part in picket lines at lunch and other times.

RWJBarnabas Hospital in New Brunswick is a Level 1 trauma center, which means that the sickest patients are sent there from other hospitals around the region. RWJBarnabas also operates 12 other acute care hospitals, three transitional care hospitals, and three specialty care hospitals outside of New Brunswick. Nurses at these facilities are not on strike. I have not heard of any plans to extend the strike to these other (non-union) facilities—which would undoubtedly be hard to accomplish.

The last time the nurses went on strike, in 2006, they were out for six weeks. This strike has already lasted longer than that. Some nurses worry that the hospital is out to break the union and perhaps to “casualize” nursing—that is, to hire nurses temporarily the way colleges hire adjuncts. Earlier this year, some of the nurses walked the picket line at Rutgers along with adjunct instructors, professors and graduate students.

Meanwhile, the hospital in New Brunswick is running on a scab basis. Management at one point claimed that they were running as normal with 1,000 “replacement nurses.” This seems unlikely: Even to maintain normal staffing ratios would imply something like 14 – 18 hour days.  The hospital seems to be putting the patients’ health at considerable risk. The scab nurses, I am told, are staying in local hotels and are being paid salaries well above those normally paid.

One evening, I walked with picketers as they lined up across the street from the buses the strike-breaker nurses used to go back to their hotels. One nurse carried a sign that said “4 scabs equals 1 RWJ Nurse. Shame on you!” The line was quite spirited, as are the nurses’ picket lines at all hours of the day (including late evening and 8 a.m.) when I have been there. I have not heard of efforts to speak to the scabs—or picket them—at their hotels.

The strikers receive a lot of community support. People driving by honk a lot. One evening, a group of us from a small city across the river held a 20+ car drive by in support of the strikers, which was met with considerable enthusiasm by the strikers. At the end of August, there was a march of 50 – 100 community supporters plus 75-125 nurses from Highland Park, NJ, to the hospital (about 1.3 miles)

I might add that, as a former and almost certainly future patient at the hospital, I am totally supportive of their demand for safer staffing. As I say to them on many occasions, to their deep appreciation, “Thank you for trying to keep me alive.”

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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Dana Cloud View All

Dana Cloud is a Tempest Collective member and scholar of Marxism, popular culture, and social movements currently teaching at California State University, Fullerton.