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10 Telling Quotes from Bernie Sanders’ Hearing at New Jersey Nurse Strike

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Updated October 31, 2023 · 4 Min Read

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Senator Bernie Sanders recently held a special hearing near an ongoing nurse strike in New Jersey. Here are the 10 most telling quotes from the event.
10 Telling Quotes from Bernie Sanders’ Hearing at New Jersey Nurse Strike
Image Credit: Kevin Dietsch / Staff / Getty Images News
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders recently chaired a Senate committee hearing near the site of the ongoing nurses strike at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey.
  • Hospital officials no-showed but submitted written testimony.
  • Sanders, nurses, and union leaders excoriated hospital officials and vowed to continue the strike, now approaching its 90th day.

Striking nurses in New Jersey were disappointed when executives from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital failed to materialize to meet them in person. But it couldn't have come as a great surprise.

This was, after all, a field hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a multi-time presidential candidate and unabashed ally of organized labor and healthcare workers, the October 27 hearing came not from the buttoned-down halls of the Capitol but a raucous assembly hall near the hospital in New Brunswick, where the bitter strike between 1,700 union nurses and hospital and system execs is closing in on the three-month mark.

The key issue in the strike is the hospital's nurse staffing levels, which nurses say are unsafe. Union leaders are seeking to mandate specific nurse-patient ratios, a controversial measure gaining popularity nationwide amid growing evidence of its effectiveness in improving patient outcomes.

What this strike has everything to do with [for nurses] is the safety of their patients, Sanders said in his opening remarks. With tears in their eyes, these nurses have told me they are simply unable to provide the quality of care they want to provide and the care their patients deserve. And the reason for that is the totally inadequate nurse-patient ratios that they are forced to deal with.

During often-heated testimony, nurse and union leaders, as well as the Senator himself, threw broadside after broadside toward hospital leaders. One of the key points of discussion was a recent letter from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital CEO Alan Lee acknowledging that the hospital had spent $103 million on travel nurses since the strike began to fill staffing gaps.

(Hospital administrators submitted written testimony to the committee, including Mark Manigan, president and chief executive officer of RWJBarnabas Health, the hospital's parent system, who had been trading barbs in the media with Sanders in the lead-up to the hearing.)

With emotions running high and frustration building over a lack of progress at the bargaining table, here are the 10 most explosive, incisive, most revealing, and most telling quotes from New Brunswick.

The Top 10 Quotes from Bernie Sanders' Hearing at the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital Nurse Strike

“What the nurses at Robert Wood Johnson are asking for is not a radical idea. All they are asking for is for this very large nonprofit hospital chain to mandate the same nurse-patient ratios that the state of California mandated some 20 years ago. And nurses in New York City won as the result of a strike 10 months ago.”

— Sen. Sanders

“We firmly believe in collective bargaining and that those negotiations should be conducted at the bargaining table, not at a press conference...We look forward to our next session where we will continue to negotiate transparently and in good faith towards reaching a fair and equitable resolution.”

— Wendy Gottsegen, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital spokesperson, in written testimony supplied to the committee, per Becker's Hospital Review

“Let’s be real clear: this issue of chronic understaffing is not the result of larger labor market forces. It is a purposeful business decision by the hospitals.”

— Judith Danella, RN, staff nurse, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and president of United Steelworkers Local 4-200, which is representing the striking nurses at the hospital

“We walked out in the ultimate demonstration of patient advocacy. We are sacrificing our salaries because we could no longer be complicit with Robert Wood Johnson Hospital’s toxic culture of understaffing. And being gaslighted when we do confront them. We know our patients deserve better, and so do we.”

— Carol Tanzi, RN, BSN, pediatric recovery room nurse, RWJ Barnabas Health

“[RWJ Barnabas officials] are afraid that if we win safe staffing, they'll have to set the same standard for all their other sites. We have taken that challenge on; we know that. Instead of saying ‘we care about our nurses,’ they chose to make the travel nurses their priority...They’re willing to pay much, much more money rather than respecting our union.”

Judith Danella

“Yes, we need to recruit nurses into the profession. And yes, we need to recruit educators as well. But without addressing retention — that is, stopping the migration out of hospitals — it’s as if we’re trying to fill a bucket full of holes with water. Those holes are the working conditions of our nurses...We’ve seen that hospitals will not be good actors. They will never agree to safe staffing on their own. It’s why we need legislation. We need laws to force hospitals to staff safely.”

— Debbie White, RN, president, Health Professionals and Allied Employees, healthcarelabor union representing 13,000 members in New Jersey and Pennsylvania

“The experience of fearing and of witnessing harm caused to patients [by understaffing] is resulting in moral injury, a form of trauma caused by not being able to provide the care they believe patients need and feel that they are powerless to make change. Among the outcomes of this distress are depression and suicide. Nurses commit suicide at twice the rate of the general population.”

— Patricia Pittman, Ph.D., Fitzhugh Mullan Professor of Health Workforce Equity and director of the Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity, The George Washington University, Washington, DC

“We’re going to stand up and fight for what this is. We’re not losing steam. Because this is too important. We didn’t go out here only to get a terrible contract. So if they come back with some stuff that isn’t a good contract, it’s going to be voted down again.”

Carol Tanzi

“We are no longer willing to be compliant to a broken system, where management puts profits over patients...I would ask them to come back to the table. If they asked me right now, I would come back to the table. Make a proposal, answer our proposals, and get us back to work. That’s what we want. This is a fight that we have taken on and we will continue. We need safe staffing, and the nurses are looking at us as human beings who build that hospital. It wasn’t the travel nurses. It was us. And we want to return to work with a fair contract.”

Judith Danella

“Let me say this to the [hospital] management: I don’t understand what you’re doing. I do not understand how you can go to your community and say you want to provide high-quality care to your patients and you have the leading experts on high-quality care — 1,700 of them — saying you’re not doing it. And I have to tell the management, and maybe politicians aren’t held in high regard, but the CEOs of large corporations are held in even less high regard. But I would hope very much that the management at Robert Wood Johnson comes back to the table, and they sit down and they negotiate a reasonable contract, which must include adequate patient-nurse ratios. And instead of being at odds with the union they work together to become a model for this country as to what a good hospital can be.”

— Sen. Sanders
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