Taken from Tap into New Brunswick
By Chuck O’Donnell
October 27, 2023
Bernie Sanders sat on the left side of the stage – the far left, you could say – and fiddled with papers, adjusted his glasses and listened for nearly 90 minutes as nurses testified, labor leaders opined, and a health care system was maligned.
By the time the Vermont senator slammed the gavel to close Friday morning’s hearing, marshaled through his standing as the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, he had been lauded and applauded, and gotten what he came to New Brunswick for.
Except one thing.
Snatched away was the chance for Sanders to pounce on the executives at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, where the nurses have been on strike since walking off their jobs at 7 a.m. on Aug. 4.
Mark Manigan, the CEO of RWJBarnabas Health, and Alan Lee, the CEO of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, could hardly be blamed for choosing to sit this one out rather than walk into a hornets nest of aggrieved nurses who crammed into Rutgers’ Nicholas Music Center at 85 George St.
Their absences didn’t stop Sanders from leaving the execs’ empty chairs and name tags on the dais for theatrical effect. Nor did it stop him from rattling off some of the questions he had jotted down.
“I would have asked them why they have some 1,700 nurses out on strike for nearly 90 days (85, actually) to improve safety in a hospital system that made over $4 billion of revenue in the first six months of the year,” Sanders wondered out loud.
“I would have asked them how their health care system could afford to spend over $100 million on traveling nurses since the strike began, but somehow cannot afford to mandate safe staffing ratios to improve the lives of patients and nurses at the hospital,” he added.
Left unsaid by Sanders was the fact that Manigan and Lee had provided advanced written testimony, refuting some of Sanders’ assertions and providing information with the hope of giving the senator the other side of the issue.
“I am troubled by the inaccurate and misleading assertions put forth by the chairman in recent public comments,” according to Manigan’s testimony, a copy of which was obtained by TAPinto New Brunswick. “Unlike a significant number of health care organizations in the Northeast and around the country, RWJUH has safe staffing guidelines in place that are derived from national, evidence‐based practice by peer academic medical centers.”
Also left unsaid was the fact that representatives for the hospital attended bargaining sessions with national mediators and negotiators for United Steel Workers 4-200 six times since Oct. 6 – a fact the hospital said shows it is negotiating in good faith.
And the negotiating team has agreed to various nurse-to-patient ratios, but the union’s rank and file failed at least twice to ratify them.
The hospital said Manigan and Lee’s testimonies demonstrate that they are acutely aware of the importance of robust nurse-to-patient ratios (the hospital has added 200 nursing positions since 2022), but that didn’t stop union president Judy Danella, a nurse at RWJUH for 28 years, and Carol Tanzi, a pediatric recovering room nurse, from providing impassioned testimony at Friday’s hearing.
Lack of staffing leads to professional burnout and increases the chances of patients not getting the care they need, they repeatedly said. It’s a widespread issue that is contributing to the country’s already broken health care system in which the average American pays too much and gets too little, Sanders added.
“This is a fight that we have taken on,” Danella said. “We will continue, and we need safe staffing and the executives need to look at us as human beings and as the employees who built that hospital.”
The nurses ultimately stole the show from Sanders, who had taken the stage to a hero’s welcome.
Through all the testimony, Sanders seemed rapt, occasionally taking notes or rubbing his chin as the nurses and nurse labor leaders spoke.
He maintained the watchful eye of a veteran crossing guard at rush hour.
The only time he broke character was when a nurse joked that her morning coffee often constituted her only meal of the workday.
When the audience laughed, a smile made every attempt to crease his face.
At 10:29 a.m., he banged the gavel, shook some hands and exited stage left.