N.J. nurses hold the line

News Analysis

ENGLEWOOD, N.J. — The struggle by 660 striking nurses at Englewood Hospital faces a double uphill fight. The strikers, members of Health Professional and Allied Employees (HPAE-AFT), is dealing with a notoriously anti-labor employer on the one hand and the looming danger that the National Labor Relations Board may soon rule that nurses are supervisors within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act, thus rendering their collective bargaining rights illegal and moot. Despite this, not one nurse has crossed the picket line.

As in past years, the union negotiating issues are very basic. Ann Twomey, HPAE president, spelled these issues out at a mass picket line rally July 17. The two most critically important issues are worker pensions and adequate nurse staffing to give patients safe and proper care. The rally was also addressed by Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey AFL-CIO, who pledged the full support of the federation’s 1 million members.

Twomey told the rally that the management had refused to negotiate in good faith or even to submit the strike issues to binding arbitration. “Englewood Hospital had a choice: keep nurses at the bedside or put them on the street,” she said. “Englewood Hospital chose to put its workers on the street on June 29th.”

Patient care seems to be much on the minds of Englewood residents as lawn signs supporting the striking nurses are on the front lawns of houses in the area. The HPAE aims to negotiate 11 contracts in New Jersey. The contract at Bergen Medical Center was settled after a strike in early June.

Rather than negotiate, the employer sent the strikers a letter aimed at weakening worker resolve and splitting the strikers. The strikers responded by sending the letters en masse back to the bosses.

The HPAE, along with the N.J. AFL-CIO and the Bergen County and Essex County AFL-CIO Councils, was instrumental in holding a rally July 13 in Newark to demand that the NLRB listen to oral arguments before it decided on the “Kentucky River” cases that address the “supervisor” issue.

Despite labor rallies across the country and pleas by concerned people in the collective bargaining field the NLRB, on July 19 rejected these pleas that it hear oral arguments. If the Bush-controlled NLRB rules to declare categories of workers as supervisors, as many as 8 million workers in a variety of job skills could lose their right to join and form a union.

The Taft-Hartley Act, which makes the pending NLRB action possible, was passed in 1947 by a Republican-controlled Congress. The law’s aim is to legislate and litigate unions into a state of helplessness. It replaced the Wagner Act, a pro-labor law that was passed in 1936 as part of the New Deal.

The pending NLRB union-busting decision could not have happened under the Wagner Act. For a long time labor’s slogan was “Repeal Taft-Hartley, restore the Wagner Act.” Its time has come.