Nurses at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital picketed outside the hospital in New Brunswick on Aug. 30, 2023. The nurses have been on strike since Aug. 4, with contract negotiations stalled over the union’s demands for a lower nurse-to-patient ratio. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
A state judge has temporarily ordered striking nurses at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick to stop disruptive picketing, calling their round-the-clock protests since their walkout started Aug. 4 “unlawful acts.”
Superior Court Judge Thomas Daniel McCloskey acted at the hospital’s request, agreeing after an emergency hearing Monday afternoon that the picketers block entrances and parking garages, intimidate other employees, and obstruct buses carrying replacement nurses to work.
“I find that the defendants’ conduct interferes with essential emergency and scheduled medical services normally provided by the hospital and that the welfare of the community, patients of the plaintiff’s hospital, patient families attempting to gain ingress and egress from the hospital to be and visit with patients under the care of the hospital, treating physicians and medical and administrative support staff providing such patient care, and of the general public as a whole is being adversely affected by such conduct,” McCloskey wrote.
A hearing is set for Friday morning, when the judge will decide whether to issue a preliminary injunction.
Nurse Judy Danella is president of United Steelworkers Local 4-200, the union representing the 1,700 striking nurses. She denied the hospital’s claims that picketers have blocked anyone’s access or threatened anyone.
“We have the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, but they’re saying we were blocking things. Nobody’s been hurt. Every time there was an ambulance, they did stop to let the ambulance through. It’s very fabricated,” Danella said. “This is just an anti-union, union-busting tactic on their end.”
The two sides last met Thursday, when a federal mediator called them to the bargaining table to break a contract impasse over the union’s demands for higher pay, a freeze on insurance premiums, and mandatory minimum nurse-to-patient ratios, as well as a dispute over sick callouts.
The day ended without an agreement, when hospital officials urged union officials to either agree to binding arbitration or accept their Aug. 2 offer. That offer included increased on-call pay and a $20 hourly bonus for nurses working shifts with high nurse-to-patient ratios standards.
Tuesday, the union held a vote and the nurses voted by an 89% majority to reject that offer and continue striking, Danella said.
No further negotiations are scheduled as of now, she added.
“We want safe staffing levels,” she said. “I don’t know what the future holds. I hope it holds to go back to the table and have serious negotiations.”
Hospital officials are “deeply disappointed” by the nurses’ vote to continue striking, spokeswoman Wendy Gottsegen said.
“RWJUH did everything it could to avoid a strike and urges the union to work with us to reach a resolution. This strike cannot go on forever,” Gottsegen said.
McCloskey’s temporary restraining order is “not about noise or restricting a peaceful demonstration, which we fully support,” she added.
“The judge issued the order in response to the increasingly aggressive activities that began last week,” Gottsegen said. “This order is needed to prevent injury or worse from the increasingly dangerous activities of the picketers.”
Picketers have chanted, blared music, and used air horns, drums, and bullhorns, both to solicit support from passing motorists and to generate attention as they march around the 620-bed hospital. The strike — the nurses’ first since 2006 — entered its 47th day Tuesday.
They were still there — but far quieter and fewer in number on Tuesday.
McCloskey’s order specifically forbade them from “parading or patrolling, gathering, loitering or picketing about the entrances or premises of the hospital or public streets or sidewalks approaching thereto or in the vicinity thereof, except in such numbers and in such manner and at such places as this court may prescribe.” But his order did not specify what numbers or manner they could gather, so Danella said the nurses were awaiting their attorneys’ advice.
“We have to pretty much stop the music, stop any air horns, and I think they want to start limiting the amount of nurses that can picket at one time,” Danella said. “But we otherwise will continue to do what we were doing.”
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