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SERV workers authorize Labor Day strike

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney talks to AFSCME protesters at last week’s rally. Photo credit: AFSCME New Jersey.
By Mark McCullough ·
SERV workers authorize Labor Day strike
Photo credit: AFSCME New Jersey.

Residential counselors and maintenance employees for SERV Centers of New Jersey in Mercer County will be on a 24-hour strike on Labor Day. The strike vote was 97% in favor. 

Members of AFSCME New Jersey and National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees (NUHHCE) 1199J held a rally last week demanding a fair contract.

They are still without a contract and accuse management of trying to silence the voice of front-line behavioral health workers – even though they are central to helping our communities rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“SERV needs to be there for its employees as we have been there every day for the consumers,” said Tanije Cauthen, a residential counselor. “Having a union gives us a fighting chance to improve safety, improve the conditions for everyone, and if we back down now then management will just keep pushing our concerns to the back burner. And we gave them enough notice to make sure the consumers are not impacted.”

The strike vote and the rally are the latest actions these workers have taken to gain a fair contract after overwhelmingly voting for their union almost two years ago. They have rallied, signed petitions, testified in front of the legislature and more, and they say they will keep going until they gain the respect they deserve.

“I stand with you in support of your right to be represented by AFSCME and to have SERV negotiate a contract for fair pay, improved working conditions, and adequate staffing,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney. “You should be treated with respect and appreciation. The work you do is difficult, demanding and vital. Greater support for workers will result in better care for consumers and a quality behavioral health system in Mercer County and New Jersey.”

Sweeney was among the elected officials who joined more than 100 demonstrators from AFSCME New Jersey and District 1199J at the rally. Sweeney pledged to hold behavioral health providers who receive state funds accountable when the legislature returns in the fall.

“I love what I do but it is disheartening to know that your employer doesn’t respect who you are and doesn’t take care of the caretakers,” said Roosevelt Day, a residential counselor. “We are going to strike. We are going to keep fighting.”

SERV’s actions underscore why it was important to secure labor peace legislation for New Jersey behavioral health workers. The measure unanimously passed the legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy signed it into law earlier this year.

“SERV’s misguided priorities have led to a staffing crisis of their own making. The state legislature has allocated the record amounts of money to help providers like SERV improve consumer services, including funds that were meant to go to front-line workers to help with recruiting and retaining employees,” said AFSCME New Jersey Executive Director Steve Tully.

“Instead, SERV’s priority has been to give their top executives six-figure pay increases and five-figure bonuses while taking away bonuses for front-line workers and failing to improve pay and working conditions for front-line workers,” Tully added. “Their failure to invest in the workforce is not good for anybody, especially the consumers.”

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