Chris Hedges: Nurses Fight Godzilla

The front line against corporate tyranny is not the ballot box. It is in the desperate struggle by the overworked and underpaid to prevent corporate behemoths from turning everyone into gig workers.

Red Crosshairs – by Mr. Fish.

By Chris Hedges
in New Brunswick, N.J.
Original to ScheerPost

Judy Danella, president of United Steel Workers Local 4-200 — the union that represents Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital’s more than 1,700 nurses — stands in a church basement before a room full of her union members. Her voice quavers slightly as she delivers grim news. The hospital management, whose top administrators earn salaries in the millions of dollars, has refused to concede to any of the nurse’s core demands.

But it is not only the strike that concerns Danella, who is wearing a blue T-shirt that reads: “Safe Staffing Saves Lives.” 

“It is 100 percent my belief that the goal is to break the union,” says Danella, who has worked at the hospital for 28 years. “This is about the future of nursing.”

On Friday the nurses went on strike.

The front line against corporate tyranny is not the ballot box. It is in the desperate struggle by the overworked and underpaid to prevent corporate behemoths from turning everyone into gig workers without health and retirement benefits, job security, sustainable incomes or equitable working conditions. Nurses, battered by the almost inhuman demands put on them during the pandemic, have been especially hard hit. Almost one-third of New Jersey’s nurses have left the profession in the last three years.

“We went from heroes to zeroes,” says Jessica Aquino, a nurse who has been at the hospital for 16 years.

RWJBarnabas Health, which owns 12 acute care hospitals, including Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, and four specialty hospitals, is the largest healthcare provider in the state of New Jersey. Its 37,000 employees, including 9,000 physicians, care for more than three million patients a year. It has $6.6 billion in annual revenue. It is registered as a 501(c) (3) not-for-profit charitable organization.

Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, 2020. (Andrew nyr, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

The company, Danella suspects, plans to make the punishing working conditions and staff reductions permanent. Unchecked, they will continue to raise insurance premiums, which can cost a nurse with a family $500 a month. They will refuse to increase salaries, which range between $43 and $64 per hour, including the paltry $5 per hour rate, which the hospital management offered to increase to $6, for on-call nurses waiting at home. The union asked for the minimum wage for on-call nurses and then offered to drop the hourly amount to $10. The on-call nurses receive their standard pay rate once they clock in. They will, if union demands are not met, be denied retirement medical benefits and retention bonuses. The crippling attrition rate will continue. 


At least 700 replacement nurses, known as travelers, from states including Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky, have been relocated to New Brunswick in the last few days and set up in area hotels to replace the striking nurses. These travelers, paid as much as $120 per hour and given housing and travel allowances, earn more than the unionized nurses. But travelers have no control over their working conditions. If the union is broken, the profits made from slashing services and chronic staff shortages will more than offset their higher salaries.

The nurses know what they are up against, especially with the governor’s office announcing that they will remain “neutral.” This neutrality means that the heavy handed tactics of Barnabas, which includes a relentless propaganda campaign and “town hall” meetings in the hospital to turn union members against the union leadership, will not be restrained.  

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy in 2018 signing legislation expanding public-private partnerships. (Phil Murphy, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

In a move that backfired, one of the deans from Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers, Dr. Carol Terregino, sent an email to second-, third- and fourth-year medical students asking them to volunteer when nurses go on strike. She said the students would be “answering call bells, checking in on patients and supporting the replacement nursing staff.”

The medical students refused, writing back that “the request to provide unpaid labor in jobs we are not trained to do at the expense of our own educational programming raises concerns about exploitation and risks creating an unsafe environment for patients.”

Congress Abetting Industry’s Assault 

Congress, at the same time, is abetting the nationwide assault on our healthcare. Every proposed solution sees it hand more money and tax breaks to the healthcare industry, which lavishly funds congressional campaigns.

“My concern is that they are so saturated with money they will try and starve us out,” said Sarah Caley, a nurse who works in radiology and has been at the hospital for over seven years. “We are hoping they will crack, that they are all talk, but ultimately this is a drop in the bucket for them.”

The health-care system has raised the costs for patients and shrunk the accessibility of medical care. In 1975 the U.S. had about 1.5 million hospital beds and a population of about 216 million people. Now, with a population of over 330 million people, the country has around 925,000 beds. Fifty-six percent of Americans have medical debt and 23 percent owe $10,000 or more, according to a study by Affordable Health Insurance. The study found emergency room visits contributed to medical debt for 44 percent of Americans. Some 330,000 Americans died during the pandemic because they could not afford to go to a doctor on time.

“In the oncology unit the ratio of nurses to patients is 1-to-5,” said Mary Silvestre, who has been at the hospital for 23 years.

“When you give chemo you have to double check their height and weight and this could be at the same time you are taking care of a patient who is actively dying. You are trying to provide emotional support to this person and their family while giving chemotherapy. It is very difficult. We trained 10 nurses last year. Five are no longer there.”

Nurses in the intensive care unit often have to care for three patients. The union wants a two-patient-for-one-nurse ratio on the intensive care unit. Other ratios demanded by the union depend on the level of medical care.

Emergency rooms are increasingly staffed by physician assistants rather than doctors, whose salaries are higher. At the same time, many of the functions once carried out by doctors have been turned over to nurses. The heavy turnover means nurses with little experience are in senior positions in critical and acute care units, such as the ER. Nurses said they often come to work sick to spare their short-staffed colleagues an onerous workload.

“It’s profits over patients,” Danella said.

Rally in Philadelphia, June 22, 2017. (Joe Piete, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The seizure of the healthcare system by ever larger conglomerates and private-equity firms has created a crisis in the health-care system. Nursing shortages, Becker’s ASC Review reports, have contributed to one of every four unexpected hospital deaths or injuries caused by errors. A 2021 study, Becker’s ASC Review says, “showed that each additional sepsis patient per nurse was associated with 19 percent higher odds of in-hospital mortality.” 

Meanwhile, the heads of these corporations are making obscene salaries. In 2022, the former CEO of Barnabas, Barry Ostrowsky, was paid more than $16 million. In 2020, the CEOs of 178 major healthcare companies collectively made $3.2 billion in total compensation, an increase of 31 percent from 2019, all in the midst of the pandemic.

According to Axios, in 2020, the CEO of Cigna made $79 million, the CEO of Centene made $59 million and the CEO of UnitedHealth Group received $42 million in total compensation. The CEO of Moderna, Stéphane Bancel, made more than $392 million from selling stock he owned in the company, on top of the $19.4 million he was paid last year. He also has a severance package — tied to Moderna’s stock price — potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars, once he leaves the company. Moderna received $2.5 billion in public funds from the Trump administration to develop its Covid vaccine.

Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, in 2016. (France in Boston, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

“The health insurance premiums continue to rise, the out-of-pocket costs continue to rise,” Dr. Margaret Flowers from Physicians for a National Health Plan told me in an interview I did with her on The Real News Network,

“And there is a new level of atrocity. Because of the mergers, the hospital corporations have their own insurance [programs]. They own the labs. They own the practices. If a doctor is trying to provide too much care to their patients, they can just pull their health insurance, kick them out and they lose all of those patients.”

You can see my full interview with Dr. Flowers here.

“That’s what happened in Maryland through our nonprofit MedStar,” Dr. Flowers said.

“They gave two days’ notice at one hospital that serves a majority of the Medicaid population. They shut down the entire pediatric department, including the pediatric emergency room and the center for children who’ve been abused.”

The solution, Dr. Flowers argues, is to provide universal health care coverage. Short of that, she argues, things will only get worse.

“We win this the same way that we’ve won every other battle,” Dr. Flowers said.

“We have to educate ourselves and others. Health is fundamental. There is no incremental way that we can do this. We cannot work within the for-profit system to fix this problem. We have to nationalize our healthcare system. This means getting the profit out completely. Unfortunately, in the bills that are in Congress right now, they don’t take that step. They continue to allow the for-profits to operate within the system, but they’re parasites. They’re always going to take as much as they can. Every dollar they take means a dollar less for somebody getting the care that they need.”

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian Science Monitor and NPR.  He is the host of show “The Chris Hedges Report.”

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12 comments for “Chris Hedges: Nurses Fight Godzilla

  1. David H
    August 6, 2023 at 22:15

    It doesn’t matter if these failures to staff are deliberate or simply the result of technique’s blind inertia [I mean whether institutions like the 118th eg foresaw lousy excuses coming and decided ahead of time they’d let’em slide, or whether the blind force just hit’em when it was too late to react]. There is a method that makes a job not logical, and the more the method succeeds the more workers don’t know which end is up in terms of making sure what they do doesn’t become entertainment for sadistic captains of industry.

    There was “kind of” an undeclared general strike for a while, and I knew at the time most of the fed up workers had not experienced trying to do care giving [already understaffed] in a building on full on quarantine during the time. I really don’t know what it’s going to take to psych care giving workers up, if they have to find out and hang in there as soon as they find out. What is for sure is that that method I mentioned above if left unchallenged will remove all sense of purpose-in-a-job American workers might have ever managed to run into or salvage.

    Encountered these quoted words this morning…

    ‘This smaller world will provide a better, richer, more human and humane world than the Ecomodernist vision of photovoltaic-powered fermenters producing bacterial paste for our grandchildren to eat while they are warehoused in cheerless, urban, high-rise warrens when not working at their bullshit jobs.’ hxxps://

    It makes you wonder if someone is betting long on America just folding up into nothing. Not the way you get ready for the next pandemic.

    Many, many, many thanks to Chris Hedges and CN for speaking up on this. Stay on the beat! Whoever says a hospital can remain a hospital under these kinds of conditions exhibits the exact same kind of dreamworld that keeps preaching Russia’s miscalculating every day of the week.

  2. dean 1ooo
    August 6, 2023 at 18:20

    Can the Nurses take donations to their Strike Fund? The larger the Strike Fund the longer the Nurses can hold out against attempts to break the Union. What is the web address for Local 4-200. I can’t send thru twitter.

  3. Dale Lehman
    August 6, 2023 at 18:04

    Chile’s 9/11 & The Rise Of US Fascism


    Labor historian Ruth Needleman was in Chile ahead of the military coup that the Nixon-Kissinger-CIA administration (U.S. Corporations and Finance) organized and paid for. The Fascist dictatorship that was installed by the United States made Chile the laboratory for neoliberalism, the corrupted economic model concocted at the University of Chicago. This interview with Needleman
    on why what happened in Chile in 1973 is relevant today to understand the current attack on nurses, the healthcare system and the encroaching Fascism that the Democratic Party and mainstream Labor Unions are facilitating. Early in the interview she talks about the role of the State Department under the guise of labor democracy training to destroy worker led unions in Chile by acquiring the names of activists and turning them over to death squads run by counter revolutionary who opposed Allende’s democratically elected government and its peaceful path to socialism.

    Chile’s 9/11 & The Rise Of US Fascism

  4. Susan Siens
    August 6, 2023 at 16:46

    America’s “health care” system is about everything except health. They’ve tried their damnedest to kill me even though their favorite strategy is to keep you alive long enough to steal everything you possess. Despite their crippling me due to gross medical neglect and malfeasance, I eat very good food and supplement wisely, and I stay as far away from these lazy-ass, drooling idiots as I can.

    This story is at least 15 years old: The CEO of a hospital in Waterville, Maine, was making $400,000+ not including perks and benefits, and the hospital was trying to stiff volunteers! A man was giving them eight hours once a week and they wanted the volunteers to pay for their own coffees; he said to hell with the hospital. The food was abysmal, like something out of a vending machine that had sat unused for six months or so. As someone said on Celia Farber’s site, a doctor told him to stay as far away from doctors as possible. Sometimes we can’t, but we need to come armed with information and not let some D- doctor intimidate us.

  5. Scott Wardinsky
    August 6, 2023 at 16:39

    4 years ago I would’ve agreed with everything Hedges writes. But after the last 4 years of malfeasance, gaslighting and criminal behavior by those in government agencies that regulate healthcare they are the last people I would trust! Without a complete overhaul of those agencies and disentanglement of the perverse incentives corporations hold over all of healthcare a nationalized system will only further our dysfunctional system!

    • J Anthony
      August 7, 2023 at 09:23

      Of course we do not want bureaucrats running a proper healthcare system, we want the physicians, nurses and other various providers running it- the folks who know what they’re doing and actually care, like the Physicians for a National Healthcare System and others

  6. J Anthony
    August 6, 2023 at 09:37

    Why do so many USAmericans meekly accept this outrageous state-of-affairs? If we had a choice over which industry to abolish the profit-motive in first, it would surely be the healthcare industry. Bankrupting the average family year-in-year-out with medical bills is a crime against humanity. There is a better way.

  7. Rafael
    August 6, 2023 at 01:20

    Absolutely true!

    This (and not the ballot box) is the “front line against corporate tyranny”.
    But corporate tyranny is just one face of a worldwide system.
    The other face is the five century old colonial tyranny and genocide.

    Only a combined struggle can do away with both.

  8. Renate
    August 5, 2023 at 15:05

    It does not surprise me at all. The government and corporate officials are all about profits. It is the only value they know. The nation is a very unsocial society, avarice is a virtue. Is being richer than others the sole motivator, the need to win the competition to have more money than anyone else? Is it the competition, the need to win, to be the richest man, or to climb the tallest mountain?
    As far as I know, only Americans publish a list of the 500 richest people, and they never let us forget who is the richest American.

      August 6, 2023 at 10:49

      Excellent comment. There is such a rich list published in Britain too.


  9. stephen sivonda
    August 5, 2023 at 11:42

    I am appalled ! The greed of the top end is atrocious….and must be taken into account. Nurses have priority jobs…..and give of themselves day after day. There is NO top end executive that is worth 16 million a year. Pigs at a troth of money!

  10. Em
    August 5, 2023 at 11:22

    Despite the deplorable overload placed on the dedicated nursing profession in the US; for years now sub-Saharan African nurses have been lured away from their countries’ so-called, still budding ‘healthcare systems’, by the machinations and seductions of the American dollar.
    No need to wonder why!

    Is the situation, at long last, finally on the cusp of real change for the better, for Africa, as a whole?
    It appears, so far, that the development scale is still tilting to the side of doubt.
    No longer a need to wonder why!

    However, Modo liceat vivere, est spes (While there’s life, there’s hope)
    – Heauton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor) by Publius Terentius Afer 
    Comic playwright Publius Terentius Afer, generally known as Terence to English speakers, died in 159 B.C.)! –

    This is, at least how long, blind-faith, and pecuniary enticement has been all there is available to the vast majority of us, eternally “working stiffs”.

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