New Jersey behavioral health workers held Labor Day strike

“I’m here because I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who voiced solidarity with behavioral health workers holding a 24-hour unfair labor practice strike on Labor Day.

Gov. Murphy made clear to the residential counselors and maintenance employees of SERV Centers of New Jersey in Mercer County that management’s bad faith contract negotiations, lies, misuse of their budgets, failure to maintain safe working conditions and intimidation were a clear issue of right versus wrong that he would help end.

“I’m with you 1,000 percent,” Gov. Murphy told the workers and their fellow AFSCME New Jersey Council 63 members during the strike. The governor was joined by an outpouring of state and local leaders so large that some joked they probably had enough for a quorum.

Council 63 members joined striking SERV workers outside of group homes and independent living facilities across the county. While SERV workers were striking, SERV managers were paid a holiday bonus on top of their normal salary to cover the shifts left open.

“We are striking because we want them to know how serious we are about getting our contract,” said Tanije Cauthen, a residential counselor. “They think if they threaten us, we will go away, but they don’t scare us. If we stop now, nothing is going to get better because nobody will be making them improve.”

AFSCME New Jersey Council 63 Director Steve Tully said, “This strike is as much about the consumers as it is about the workers. SERV’s failure to invest in the workforce and provide safe and sanitary working conditions is having a negative impact on the quality of care for the consumers. These workers are out here today to put a stop to that.”

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, who sponsored labor peace legislation for behavioral health workers earlier this year, said that he is committed to making sure that state funding goes where it is needed the most, and he would hold providers accountable for how they spend public funds. 

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin told SERV workers not to give up or give in because they were not waging their fight alone. He said the Assembly was ready to hold providers like SERV accountable for not living up to both the spirit and the letter of the labor peace law. He also said the poor conditions of the facilities, with bats, rats, leaking roofs and more, further underscore how management is not prioritizing the consumer welfare or the workers providing the services.

Negotiations that began in late July 2020, eight months after they voted overwhelmingly for their union, have continued for more than a year while SERV pays top dollar to Jackson Lewis, the country’s largest union-busting law firm, to advise them on how to deny their workers the respect and dignity they deserve.