Sen. Bernie Sanders visits New Jersey and vows to fight for striking nurses

By: Sophie Nieto-Munoz; New Jersey Monitor

Hundreds of nurses and health care professionals packed an auditorium at Rutgers University Friday to watch Sen. Bernie Sanders lead a Senate committee hearing focused on the months-long nurses strike at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick.

“Nurses at Robert Wood Johnson and workers all over this country want better wages and better benefits, but that is not the primary reason for the strike,” said Sanders, a Vermont Independent. “What nurses have told me — and I’ve had the opportunity on several occasions to sit down and talk with these nurses — is that what this strike has everything to do with is the safety of their patients.”

Sanders’ visit to Rutgers University comes 84 days after 1,700 union nurses walked off the job. Both sides met at the bargaining table on Sunday, but did not strike a deal. Tensions continue rising between hospital leaders and union nurses.

“There is not a lot on the table, and we get told, ‘We will get back to you’ on Sunday night. It’s now a Friday. They haven’t gotten back to us yet. Again, we go back and forth over a very simple idea that has been complicated to the max,” said Judy Danella, president of the nurses union and one of the six nurses who joined Sanders’ hearing.

The senator started his session by calling out RWJUH executives Mark Manigan and Alan Lee, noting they claimed to be “eager” — Sanders used air quotes — to testify but ultimately declined to show up. Sanders said he received their written testimony Thursday night.

Sanders shared the questions he said he would have asked if they showed up: What are ongoing safety improvements in the hospital, which brought in $4 billion in the first six months of the year; how do they afford the $100 million they’ve spent on replacement nurses; and why did the CEO rake in $17 million in 2021?

Hospital officials criticized the Vermont senator’s appearance, calling it “unconscionable” that he “overtly inserts himself in labor negotiations between a hospital in New Jersey and our nurses.”

Lee, president of the hospital, said in his testimony that he believes a contract is attainable “in the near future.” He added he “makes no apologies” for ensuring the hospital would remain open for patients, including by staffing it with replacement nurses.

“We cannot risk anything taken out of context in this hearing that might hinder our ability to reach an agreement to bring our nurses back inside so that they can resume their noble profession and support themselves and their families. Ending this strike is paramount,” Lee said.

Sanders, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, was the only senator in attendance at Friday’s hearing.

He urged RWJ officials to negotiate a contract that includes adequate patient-nurse ratios. Hospital executives have said their ratios are among the best in the nation.

There is no future negotiation date yet set. Hospital officials said in a statement that negotiations should be conducted at a “bargaining table — not at a press conference.”

Throughout the hour-and-a-half hearing, the crowd of nurses sporting blue, red, or purple shirts in support of their union stood and offered resounding applause several times for the senator.

The group of union leaders and nurses emphasized they’re asking for what they called basic necessities so caregivers can properly look after their patients. They touched on improving nurse-to-patient ratios, bettering retention through higher wages, and addressing the fatigue that is pushing nurses to leave the profession.

Pediatric recovery room nurse Carol Tanzi said nurses complaining of burnout were told by hospital officials to “get over their COVID hangover.”

“They had the nerve to say that when they were not where we were. So these people who are hiding can’t look us in the eye,” she said.

Patricia Pittman of The George Washington University’s school of public health urged a government accountability report to look into how hospitals pay for nurse labor and support staff. And Tanzi suggested investigating pandemic-era money awarded to the hospital and whether it trickled down to nurses.

Sanders agreed, noting the hospital received millions in federal COVID-19 dollars and $3 billion in revenue from Medicare and Medicaid.

“We have a nursing crisis. We desperately need more nurses, and nurses are walking out the door,” Sanders said.