Contentious NJ nurses, more needed

  1. Nurses come to bargaining table with clout

    Published in the Home News Tribune 8/02/03


    TRENTON -- With the shortage of hospital nurses giving them more clout at the bargaining table, contract negotiations have been getting more contentious as nurses push harder for more staff and better working conditions, changes they say are needed to reduce burnout and medical errors.

    While still rare, strikes have been on the rise, with at least nine around the country already this year.

    Since June 24, a total of about 3,000 registered nurses at University Hospital in Newark, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick and three Virtua Health hospitals -- in Voorhees, Marlton and Berlin -- have voted to authorize their negotiators to call a strike as contract talks dragged. None have walked out, though.

    And union organizing activity is increasing nationwide, as unions in health care and other fields persuade nurses at nonunion hospitals to vote for representation.

    Since late May, several hundred RNs at Christ Hospital in Jersey City and Southern Ocean County Hospital in Manahawkin voted to join Health Professionals and Allied Employees, New Jersey's largest health-care union.

    "This has been building. (Nurses) are at a breaking point," said HPAE president Ann Twomey, whose union represents about 8,000 RNs and 2,000 other health workers at 15 hospitals and three nursing homes. "Nurses all over the state are saying, 'We're in this fight to save the health-care industry and improve our profession.' "

    RNs at three New Jersey hospitals voted for union representation between 2001 and 2002, according to Ron Czajkowski, spokesman for the New Jersey Hospital Association. About one-third of New Jersey hospitals now have unionized RNs.

    "There's heightened activity. There's no doubt," he said.

    Labor officials and union members say the primary contract issue generally is staffing -- how many RNs there are to care for increasingly sick patients, whether they get shifted to unfamiliar units, a practice called floating, and how much support staff they have. Finances are always an issue, though, from wages to pension plans and health insurance copayments.

    In both areas, the hospitals are often between a rock and a hard place. Many are losing money, and it's difficult to hire more RNs when 15 percent of New Jersey hospital nurse positions already are vacant. That's because the country is short about 125,000 nurses for the 2 million current jobs; the federal government estimates the shortage will hit 800,000 by 2020 as the aging population needs more care and fewer people enter the profession.

    In the most contentious New Jersey negotiations, Robert Wood Johnson nurses since July 10 have twice voted to reject contract offers, authorize a strike and give the hospital the required 10-day notice of when a strike could start. The hospital, a top-level trauma center, has added a new pension plan and slightly improved its wage offer since the first contract proposal, said hospital spokesman John Patella. The nurses yesterday voted to approve the latest offer.

    About 800 RNs at University Hospital authorized a strike on Wednesday -- despite being state employees legally barred from striking. The two sides are still negotiating, so the nurses' union, HPAE, hasn't issued a 10-day strike notice.

    Twomey, the HPAE president, said strike authorization votes now are fairly routine.

    "In the past, the nurses were saying, 'We don't want to go on strike.' Now they're saying, 'We will strike.' "

    At Virtua, nurses ratified a final contract offer on July 9 that gives nurses limited say on staffing levels, tight restrictions on mandatory overtime, bigger contributions to their pension plan and annual raises of 4 1/2 percent to 5 percent, said Virginia Treacy, executive director of JNESO, the union the nurses elected to represent them in April 1996.

    Nearby at Lower Bucks Hospital in Bristol, Pa., just north of Philadelphia, about 200 registered nurses voted to authorize a strike on June 19, then ratified an improved contract on June 30. In between, they got new limits on floating, a slightly higher wage increase and better health insurance benefits, said Jerry Silberman, a staff representative at their union, Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals.

    "I think that nurses are negotiating from a position of greater strength because of the nursing shortage," conceded hospital spokesman Bob Harris, who would not discuss the issues.

    copyright 2003 The Associated Press
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    Joined: Jan '99; Posts: 735; Likes: 213


  3. by   lee1
    Does anyone else here work in NJ. Have you seen that a hospital in Easton, Pa right across the Delaware River has also agreed to go on strike