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The New Jersey Nursing Strike Ends: Here’s What’s in the Proposed Deal

Joelle Y. Jean, FNP-C, BSN, RN
Updated December 11, 2023
Edited by
    A tentative agreement has finally been reached after 1,700 New Jersey nurses represented by USW Local 4-200 have been on strike for more than 120 days. Learn more about the details leading to the tentative agreement.
    Nurse shaking hands with business professionalCredit: Getty Images/Tetra images RF
    • 1,700 New Jersey nurses reached a tentative agreement with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick.
    • The long-awaited tentative agreement is a three-year contract that focuses on raising wages by 8.5%, capping insurance costs, public health emergency language, and safe staffing ratios.
    • The strike began on August 4 and lasted more than 120 days.
    • A ratification vote is scheduled for the upcoming week.

    Approximately 1,700 New Jersey nurses represented by United Steelworkers (USW) Local 4-200 have reached a tentative agreement with administrators at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) in New Brunswick. The strike began on August 4 and lasted more than 120 days.

    With the support of Senator Bernie Sanders, who held a hearing for the union nurses in October, Sanders posted a statement on X.

    “Congratulations to the nurses of United Steelworkers Local 4-200 for reaching a tentative agreement with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in NJ that will set safe staffing ratios to improve the lives of patients and nurses. Thank you nurses for standing up for all of us.”

    Union nurses hailed the decision.

    Debbie White, RN, and president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE), New Jersey’s largest healthcare union, wrote in the RWJ Nurses United Instagram account, “These nurses have paved the way for many other healthcare unions going into bargaining next year, who also understand that safe staffing is the only solution to improve patient outcomes and keep nurses from leaving our hospital.”

    The strike is set to continue until union members approve the tentative agreement. The vote is currently scheduled for December 23, and union leaders have endorsed the deal.

    “It wasn’t just a walkout; it was a sacrifice,” Hummad Syed, BSN, RN, an ICU nurse with RWJUH, tells NurseJournal. “We were away from the bedside for 125 days, without pay, health insurance; we spent our summer on the picket line.”

    A hospital spokesperson sounded a magnanimous tone after the tentative deal was made public.

    “RWJUH has the utmost respect and appreciation for our nurse colleagues and all they do for our patients, the community, and this hospital. We look forward to the outcome of the ratification vote,” said Wendy Gottsegen, an RWJUH spokesperson, in a statement.

    New Jersey Nurses Strike: The Background

    Like many nursing strikes and labor disputes around the country, the USW nurse strike was organized in protest of what nurses deemed unsafe and unfair labor practices. Unreasonable wages and insurance costs are on the negotiating table. However, the key issue at the forefront of the strike is the establishment of safe nurse-to-patient staffing ratios and the need for laws and regulations codifying safe staffing.

    Syed has been on strike since day one.

    “If Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital had taken the staffing concerns raised by the 1,700 nurses over the past three years seriously, the unfair labor practice strike wouldn’t have occurred,” Syed told NurseJournal.

    The plan is to meet next week, where the union will hold an informational meeting for their nursing members to discuss the tentative agreement and place a ratification vote shortly after.

    Strikes are always challenging and have significant economic consequences for both parties. According to a public letter updated December 1, the strike has cost RWJ Barnabas Health over $120 million for replacement nurses.

    Interactions between RWJUH nurses and administrators were acrimonious throughout the strike period. Hospital leaders canceled striking nurses’ health insurance one month after the start of the strike. (Nurses retained the option to enroll in the COBRA program to continue in the RWJBarnabas Health System health and wellness benefit programs.) The hospital’s self-insurance policy means employees are required to see RWJ providers, meaning costs for the hospital are relatively low.

    “It didn’t help when they canceled the health insurance of all 1,700 nurses despite RWJ being self-insured,” Syed says.

    In late October, Sen. Sanders held a remote hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which he chairs, near the site of the strike, spending most of the hearing excoriating hospital leaders, who declined to attend the hearing.

    Nurses were also barred from working anywhere across the 11-hospital RWJ Barnabas system during the strike. Many picked up contracts or worked per diem at other facilities outside the system, Syed said.

    Throughout the process, hospital administrators insisted:

    “Staffing at RWJUH is not just proper, but among the highest in New Jersey,” hospital spokeswoman Wendy Gottsegen said in a statement in October. “In fact, the hospital is staffed by 170 more nurses than is called for…Further, in many cases, RWJUH’s staffing proposal meets or exceeds levels set forth by legislation in states like California and in a number of hospital labor settlements across the country.”

    But the union begged to differ.

    New Jersey Nurse Strike Resolution: What’s in the Deal

    According to the USW website, the long-awaited tentative agreement is a three-year contract with RWJUH New Brunswick that includes:

    • Establishing safe nurse-patient staffing ratios
    • Raising wages by 8.5%
    • Capping insurance costs
    • Public health emergency planning

    USW Local 4-200 President Judy Danella told members that the union feels the contract is fair and recommended they vote yes.

    “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,” Danella noted on the USW website.

    Now that the strike is nearing its end, Syed is thankful for the 1,700 nurses who spent more than three months on the picket lines.

    “These nurses, part of the United Steelworkers, showed incredible dedication to patient safety,” Syed says. “RWJUH backed us into a corner, and it unleashed something in us. We’ve realized that unions are only as powerful as their members, and ours has come out significantly stronger. I’m quite excited for the future.”

    In addition to the tentative agreement, RWJ nurses will continue to fight for fair staffing up to the legislative level. According to their Instagram account, nurses at RWJ are organizing council meetings to “request for municipal resolution in support of Assembly Bill No. 4536/Senate Bill No. S304 to establish minimum registered professional nurse staffing standards.”

    Meet Our Contributor

    Portrait of Hummad Syed, BSN, RN

    Hummad Syed, BSN, RN

    Hummad Syed, BSN, RN, is a critical care registered nurse at Robert Wood Johnson, New Brunswick. He currently works in the medical intensive care unit. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he entered nursing in 2020 and initially worked on a designated COVID unit. Now, he is one of the 1,700 nurses on the 120-day strike, actively supporting the union in various roles.