New Jersey's RWJUH, nurses' union strike tentative deal to end contentious 4-month strike

New Jersey’s largest academic medical center has reached a tentative agreement with a union representing about 1,700 of its nurses to end a four-month strike.

Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) and United Steelworkers Local 4-200 announced the deal Friday afternoon, but did not share any specific terms in public statements. Union members will be attending informational sessions on the agreement this week in the run-up to a ramification vote. No potential date has been given for when the nurses could return to work.

Since Aug. 4, union nurses have been on picket lines advocating for higher wages, stronger benefits and nurse-to-patient ratios to help address what they described as unsafe staffing levels.

“The union and the hospital have come to an agreement that addresses enforceable safe staffing standards, reasonable wage increases and many other enhancements that will improve benefits for nurses to levels greater than existed when we commenced our labor strike,” USW4-200 wrote in an announcement for members published on its website.

The striking nurses have been demonstrating without pay and, since September, without benefits. Their demonstrations gained national attention in late October when Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Va.) featured the union’s nurses in a late-October Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing held at New Jersey’s Rutgers University.

RWJUH is a 640-bed academic medical center affiliated with Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. In a statement, a RWJUH spokesperson said, “we encourage our nurses to attend these meetings and vote at the ratification sessions. The resolution reflects our shared goals of providing the highest-quality patient care and creating a safe and supportive working environment for our nurses." 

RWJUH’s parent organization, the nonprofit health system RWJBarnabus Health, recently reported $57.6 million in operating losses (-0.9% operating margin) and a 10.7% year-over-year increase in salary and wage expenses across the first nine months of 2023. Still, the system logged a $178.7 million excess of revenue during the same period thanks to its strong net investment income.

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

Media reports characterized the strike as particularly contentious. The union had rejected offers from the hospital that increased pay and staffing and, as an alternative to strict ratios, offered a bonus should a unit’s staffing fall below certain cutoffs. RWJUH eventually filed a restraining order against the picketers over disruptive noises, while the nurses reportedly demonstrated outside of hospital executives’ homes.

State lawmakers and other government officials who had been in contact with both sides applauded the potential deal.

In a statement, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy (D) said he is “pleased” that the two sides “reached a tentative agreement that recognizes the indispensable role of our frontline healthcare workers, who provide critical services to patients throughout our state while allowing nurses to return to their jobs. I am grateful to the many individuals who were involved in these talks for their dedication to finding a fair and acceptable solution that works for both sides.”