Who Do You Trust More?
By today, all of the striking nurses at New Brunswick, New Jersey’s Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital will lose their employer healthcare coverage. No new talks are scheduled.
“As of September 1, RWJUH nurses must pay for their health benefits through COBRA,” said RWJ spokeswoman Wendy Gottsegen. “This hardship, in addition to the loss of wages throughout the strike, is very unfortunate. We hope the union considers the impact a prolonged strike is having on our nurses and their families.”
It’s a painful standoff that has some of the state’s wealthiest and most politically connected powerbrokers up against the United Steelworkers Nurses Local 4-200, which represents close to 1,700 nurses who weathered a once-in-a-century mass death event that around the country killed thousands of healthcare workers and disabled many more.
Our healthcare system here in New Jersey and across the nation did not hold up very well during COVID. The U.S. is four percent of the world’s population, but at least 12 percent of its COVID deaths. Multiple peer reviewed studies have documented the lack of N-95s and proper staffing in our healthcare system helped drive the infection and death rate particularly in underserved communities of color.
In a reality that residents of New Jersey and New York know all too well, our congregant care facilities, where we house our most vulnerable, became vectors for the disease.
Holding the American healthcare system accountable for its failure means being prepared to take on some of our nation’s most entrenched interests that have cultivated both major political parties. President Joe Biden’s recent comment that “healthcare is a right” is a sign that we might see some attention to the healthcare affordability and access crisis that still grips our nation.
Even before the pandemic that killed 1.1 million Americans and disabled millions more, our healthcare system that’s largely based on non-profits like RWJBarnabas that pay Wall Street wages for leadership, was ranked most expensive among our peer OECD nations with the worst healthcare outcomes.
In the big picture that matters, U.S. life expectancy continues to decline as costs go up. We now rank in the 40s globally. We will be dropping further in that ranking as the corporatization of healthcare accelerates.
In 2018, CNN reported the United States would “take the biggest drop in ranking of all high-income countries, falling from 43rd in 2016 to 64th by 2040, with an average life expectancy of 79.8. The US will be overtaken by China, which rises 29 places to 39th in the table.
That was before the pandemic.
The RWJBarnabas system is a not-for-profit healthcare giant with a dozen acute care hospitals and a partnership with Rutgers University. The system has 38,000 employees and $6.6 billion in revenue. It relies on hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-exempt state issued bonds for capital construction.
Yes, it sounds like a public, almost quasi-governmental entity with a vital and noble mission which it, along with its workforce, executes on 24-7 basis in some of New Jersey’s poorest and most underserved communities.
Yet, it also generates vast fortunes for some people on top of the healthcare pyramid.
The system’s recently-retired CEO and President Barry Ostrowsky earned $16 million in the second year of the pandemic, making him the highest paid hospital executive in the New York area, according to Crain’s New York .
He’s now on the board of directors of PSE&G.
According to RWJBarnabas’ latest available 990 IRS form from fiscal year 2020, Ostrowsky was making $5.59 million three years ago. Over a dozen other top executives listed were in the million dollar or more category.
The hospital system’s filing includes links to dozens of “related organizations taxable as partnerships” that are identified with nondescript and anonymous sounding names like “Medmerge LLC” or “Jersey ASC Ventures LLC.” There’s a C-corporation Major Investigations Inc., which is listed as “security” at 95 Old Short Hills Rd. In West Orange, the same address as the RWJBarnabas Health Foundation.
Any entity that operates on the scale that the RWJBarnabas system does needs to have cash on hand and investments that can help it sustain its charitable mission. It’s all a matter of degrees and transparency.
Under Schedule F in its IRS filings, which catalogues its financial “activities outside the United States,” it describes “program services” listed in Central America and the Caribbean that’s a “financial vehicle” worth $41,174,204.
For its public relations strategy, management is relying on MWW [MikeWorldWide], the powerhouse firm founded by Michael Kempner, described by Politico as a “major Democratic fundraiser who bundled millions of dollars for Barack Obama’s campaigns.”
According to Kempner’s LinkedIn profile he is “active in progressive politics, having played roles in the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and most recently, Joe Biden.”
The global crisis management firm includes a high-powered team that come from the highest echelons of power that includes former reporter Steve Sandberg, who was chief spokesperson for U.S. Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In his role as senior vice president for public affairs “at one of the world’s leading public relations agencies,” Sandberg is playing a key role in how the RWJBarnabas system responds to the strike it consistently asserts it wanted to avoid.
Sandberg, who has been very proactive about making sure management’s message gets out, would not answer a query from this reporter as to whether or not MWW is providing their services pro bono.
He responded by asking if I was in the employ of any unions. I responded that I was not, but that I do benefit from a SAG-AFTRA pension and Social Security. Yes, I am very grateful to the union movement.
Central to the labor versus management dispute is which side represents the best interests of the hospital’s workforce and the patients, as well as the broader community they serve.
Back three years ago, in its IRS filings RWJBarnabus said it spent $18.5 million for advertising. In our present media landscape that buys a lot of space.
In one of its most recent releases, it heralded the success of New Brunswick’s Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital’s (RWJUH) Heart Transplant Team that “successfully performed a transplantation on August 4 within the first 24 hours of the nurse strike implemented by its nursing union.”
“The gift of life was received by a 52-year-old patient from Trenton who was discharged from RWJUH on August 14 after 10 days in the hospital’s state-of-the-art Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit and cardiovascular in-patient unit. Heart transplantation is among the most complex procedures in medicine,” the release proclaimed.
Last year, Lester J. Owens was named as the new Chair of the RWJBarnabas Health Board of Trustees.
“A founding member of the Board, Mr. Owens has served as Vice Chair since 2019 and has served on its Audit, Compliance, Compensation, Nominating and Governance, as well as Racism and Social Justice Committees,” according to the press release. “He is also a long-time trustee of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick where he has served on the Compensation, Finance, Pediatric Program and Investment Committees.”
The release continued. “Mr. Owens serves on the Operating Committee and is the Senior Executive Vice President and head of Operations for Wells Fargo & Company, where he oversees a team of more than 70,000 employees and is responsible for building a more unified, integrated approach to Wells Fargo’s business operations functions,” according to the press release announcing his appointment. “Prior to joining Wells Fargo, Mr. Owens was the Global Head of Operations at BNY Mellon. He has also led significant operations functions for JPMorgan Chase, Deutsche Bank, Citibank, and Bankers Trust.”
Wells Fargo. Residents of places like Newark and Irvington know the outfit really well.
Earlier this year, Fortune reported on internal documents from the beleaguered banking multinational “privately expressing increased concern that a years-long effort to unionize the bank’s employees could soon start notching victories — and have made plans to spend millions addressing the ‘pain points’ that can fuel organizing efforts.
“The lender has seen ‘an increase in organizing activity’ by employees working with the Communications Workers of America, according to an internal PowerPoint presentation viewed by Bloomberg News,” Fortune reported. “That comes amid what it called a broader ‘resurgence’ of US union activity.”
The report continues, “Leaders at the San Francisco-based bank have worried over the trends, according to a manager who isn’t allowed to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The company has estimated the extra expense of having unionized workers, and drafted plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on staffing improvements, the manager said, describing contents of meetings on the subject.”
“Wells Fargo believes our employees are best served by working directly with the company and its leadership – not a third-party group like a union – to address matters of concern,” Wells Fargo said in a statement responding to Fortune’s query. “The company is investing in employees through training and education, is boosting minimum pay and health benefits, and now has a Diverse Segments, Representation, and Inclusion leader who reports directly to its chief executive officer.”
Fortune observed the bank had “around 193,000 US employees at year-end, none of whom were unionized.”
RWJUH in New Brunswick has had a nurses’ union going back decades. Back in 2005, the United Steelworkers Local 4-200 took up the mantle. As one of America’s legacy unions, it has 1.2 million active and retired members including 50,000 in the healthcare sector representing titles as varied as physician and EMT from New Jersey to California. They even scored a recent organizing coup in Wyoming.
On day one of the job action, the plumbing in the Magyar Reformed Church, which the union is renting as a headquarters for the strike, suffered a “construction accident” that disabled the plumbing taking out the toilets for the picket line. The church sits at the center of the RWJUH complex, which includes the ongoing construction of its $1 Billion cancer center.
“We’re nurses, we are resourceful, we do what we have to do, so we rented portable toilets,” Judy Danella, RN, president of United Steelworkers Nurses Local 4-200, said. The union has filed several Unfair Labor Practices against the hospital system, which is playing hardball.
The union says their top priority is to improve nurse to patient ratios and to have an enforcement mechanism to hold hospital management accountable when it falls short of that standard. The hospital counters it tried to prevent a strike and paints the union as being erratic and as an unreliable bargaining partner.
“RWJUH did everything it could to avoid a strike. The hospital agreed to and signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) on July 13, which included the union’s core staffing proposal and compensation settlement,” according to the hospital. “The union leaders signed it and agreed to recommend the MOA to its membership but did not. It was voted down by the nurses and a notice to strike was presented to the hospital. “
The hospital’s narrative continues, “Then, on August 2, two days before the strike, the hospital submitted a proposal to the union that went even further than what was in the MOA, and the union never presented that proposal to its membership before they went out on strike.”
RWJUH further asserts it, “offered to enter binding arbitration or participate in a federal mediation and conciliation board of inquiry; the union refused both. When the hospital requested the union rescind its strike notice and return to the table to continue good faith negotiations, the union said no.”
The hospital chain maintains that “during the 10-day window prior to the strike, the hospital made another counteroffer to attempt to avert the strike. The union did not respond to the offer until after the strike.”
“Since the strike, mediation has not been productive; counteroffers from the union have far exceeded all previous asks, including those the union agreed to in the MOA,” RWJUH concludes.
Of course, the union has its narrative.
Danella told hundreds of her members on the picket line on Aug. 28, that the hospital was not coming to the table, adding that the union “never refused to bargain” with management. She said the failure to make progress “was not for the lack of the union trying.”
Danella further told members it was her hope that “somebody would push the governor” to become engaged in the almost month-long strike at one of New Jersey’s Level 1 Trauma Centers. Unlike in the Rutgers University strike, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has stayed on the sidelines, so far. As governor, he has committed to use the tragic lessons of the pandemic to improve our healthcare system. That’s not a light lift. There’s a lot of powerful folks who made a killing on the way New Jersey handles healthcare.
“Hospitals have been downsizing their staffs over the years to try and save money at the same time that some of the hospitals are full — so safe staffing is something that nurses — not just in New Jersey — but all over the country are looking at,” NJ AFL-CIO President Charlie Wowkanech told Insider NJ earlier this month. “The issue isn’t just about the nurses, it’s about you and I and our families. Someone gets sick and goes to the hospital and they got one nurse for eight or nine patients, particularly some of these wards with infants or you have intensive care units where people need pretty much constant attention. That’s really what the fight is all about.”
RN and Local 4-200 activist Renee Bacany said, “We really need to make sure that we can take care of our patients to the best of our ability and that would mean less patients than we are taking on now on a daily basis. Better staffing reduces infection, reduces patient mortality — that’s what study after study shows, no doubt about it.”
Christi Peace, a spokesperson for Governor Murphy said the governor “remains a strong proponent of organized labor and believes employees deserve a seat at the table when negotiating labor matters.”
“The administration encourages both parties to maintain an open dialogue and will continue to remain engaged with them as they work towards a fair and acceptable resolution to these negotiations,” she said.
On Monday, the striking nurses got a pep talk from Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Dist. 19). Coughlin referenced his own daughter-in-law’s experience as a nurse during the COVID pandemic.
“To thank you requires more than a speech, it requires some action,” Coughlin said. “I know what this is about — fundamental fairness. This is about people getting paid what they ought to be paid, being able to provide the care that their patients need each and every day….this is about patient care and fundamental fairness and that’s why it’s so important that you stand up for yourself today.”
Coughlin added, “It’s time, it’s time to stand up together and to get a contract. It’s time for all of you to be back inside doing what you love to do, what you care about doing and making the difference that you make each and every day.”
Over the weekend, U.S. Senator Cory Booker also offered support for the striking nurses.
“We hailed them as heroes during the pandemic, but when it comes to their compensation, the nursing ratios, we’ve got to make sure they are being treated like heroes, not just in words but in the kind of contract and living circumstances they have,” Booker said.