By Saul Anuzis – Special to the USA TODAY Network
Over the past month, the union representing nurses in New Jersey’s largest healthcare system has launched an aggressive campaign of disruption and intimidation that has put vulnerable older patients at risk as they try to access essential care.
RWJBarnabas Health has been negotiating with the union since April on a package that would provide generous raises and enhance working conditions for what is already the state’s highest-paid nursing workforce. But lately these negotiations have taken on a new and harsher form. Organizers from the United Steelworkers labor union have taken extreme measures, leading disruptive picketing actions at healthcare facilities, hospitals and emergency care centers at all hours of the day and night.
RWJBarnabas has more than 600 staffed beds and treats more than 3 million patients per year in New Brunswick alone. The facility also provides many specialty services that patients are unable to receive elsewhere. For instance, it has Central New Jersey’s only level 1 trauma center, only lung transplant program, the oldest and most experienced heart transplant program and world-class adult cardiac surgery services.
Patients entering that hospital are now being harassed, while those within are barraged with noise from fireworks, train horns, and DJs as they endure difficult procedures and try to heal. As excessive noise at all hours of the day and night persists, these patients are unable to get the rest they need to recover.
There is a time and place for peaceful demonstration, but disrupting patient care should be off limits. My organization, 60 Plus Association, has more than 600,000 members in the state — and I feel strongly that their health should not be a negotiating pawn for USW leaders in a fight that is no longer for nurses, but against hospitals.
Nurses deserve fair compensation and good working conditions. These benefits do not need to come at patients’ expense. Union leaders should support the workers they represent by putting down their bullhorns and getting back to the negotiating table, so that patients can safely and peacefully continue receiving care — and nurses can get back to the work they love.According to the U.S. Department of Labor and Statistics, the median salary for registered nurses in New Jersey is $98,090, more than 20% above the national average. The hospital’s second offer, made in July prior to the strike, increased benefits for all nurses and raised wages by 14%, while also including provisions for increased staffing. Meanwhile, the USW has become increasingly hostile outside the hospital while giving little indication of any alternative settlements that could bring them back to the negotiating table.The entire healthcare system was hit hard during the pandemic. We saw doctors, nurses and hospital staff stretched thin as resources dwindled and their wards reached capacity. Years later, they are still trying to recover financially, emotionally and physically. Many nurses and doctors faced burnout and resigned or retired. It was a trying time for hospitals, healthcare workers and patients, and as we adjust to this ‘new normal’, both sides have been amenable to renegotiating contracts to reflect the resiliency of their staff and industry.
Labor unions can be helpful advocates for workers in many professions — but only when they genuinely help their members achieve the outcomes they are seeking. In this case, USW leaders would be better serving their rank and file by returning to the negotiating table in earnest to help nurses get the support they need to return to their job empowered. Unfortunately, they have decided to dedicate resources toward loud, disruptive demonstrations that benefit no one – save for possibly garnering more attention for USW themselves.
It’s time for leaders to do the right thing and negotiate in earnest so nurses can get back to doing what they love —caring for patients — while securing the benefits they need to succeed.
Saul Anuzis is president of the 60 Plus Association, a 501(c)4 non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for seniors who believe in market-based solutions and are dedicated to protecting citizens’ right to freedom of speech and limited but effective government.