Swans Commentary » swans.com January 13, 2014  



Union vs. Non-Union
A View From the Trenches of the Mental Health Field


by Glenn Reed





(Swans - January 13, 2014)   "I've worked here five years and I'm making the same wage as new hires. It isn't fair. They don't recognize any of my experience." That's essentially what a co-worker complained about recently when our employer, which is a non-profit mental health agency, trumpeted its first raises in five years: a whopping 3% on a non-living wage. The increase allows us to buy a couple lattes a week. Or a half-tank of gas if you have a fuel-efficient car.

So I very carefully broached the topic of ....unions with this co-worker. I told her about one of my previous non-profit jobs at another mental health agency in Washington State where everyone received annual 3% step raises. She gave me a shocked look. "You mean they give them to everyone, regardless of what kind of worker they are?" she replied, before quickly changing the subject.

Sigh. End of conversation. I should've known.

Over a year ago, I wrote a Swans article about the problems with unions in the United States. I considered it to be a pro-union piece because I recognize all that these organizations have accomplished for workers throughout history and how they remain vital for worker rights. I also acknowledged that unions, like all organizations, are flawed and in need of constant vigilance by an engaged and informed membership, and not right-wingers and corporatists with an agenda. My writing was based on first-hand knowledge of having worked as an active union member in the mental health field, up until about seven years ago, in Washington State.

Last summer I needed to take a job, once again, in a residential mental health facility, but in Vermont. This job is non-union. The experience has greatly reinforced my feelings about the advantages of a unionized workplace, especially in this particular field. The mental health field in the United States, as with so many of the "people professions," is plagued by chronic under-funding, top-heavy management, and rapid burn-out and turn-over among the direct service providers. It's also burdened by a pervasive lack of respect from a society that glorifies individual material gain and the corporate mentality while devaluing caring, the common good, and people before profit.

It's clear to those working in the field that the stigma continuing to afflict those with a mental illness in our society extends, as well, to those that work with this population. I can distinctly recall someone (at a party about ten years ago) asking where I worked. When I told him, he paused and then replied "well, I guess someone has to do it."

Yes, he was a corporate executive.

Ah, but that's another article and these bigger issues are true of both union and non-union workplaces in mental health. In both Washington and Vermont, for instance, mental health agencies are primarily dependent on the whims of state and federal funders and elected officials who are all quick to target the most vulnerable whenever there is a need to "cut" something in the budget. After all, the mentally ill and the low-paid people that work with them don't contribute much to political campaigns and don't have the resources to park lobbyists in state houses and in D.C. It seems that the only time they pay any attention is due to a tragedy, such as a mass shooting involving someone with a mental illness. Then the response is much akin to our elected officials' actions with gun control.

Much ado about nothing....until the next tragedy. Meanwhile, the ongoing tragedies of lack of services for the mentally ill, the housing crisis that directly affects them, the "drug war" and other policies that criminalize them and turn prisons into the new "Bedlam" are ignored by our enlightened elected officials.

Another story indeed. Back to the union question.

Pay in the mental health field is pretty much universally bad. Those with a bachelor's and some (or even a lot of) experience can expect to start in the range of $12 to $14 an hour (or less) in most states around the country. This is true even in urban areas. Of course, it's hardly a living wage. Large numbers of people in the field go back to school to earn MSWs (Masters in Social Work) or counseling or something related and find that all of that resulting student loan debt burden gains them, typically, just $1.50 or $2 more an hour. That increase is often eaten up by their monthly student loan payments.

Now, Vermont is a mostly rural state and pay scales suffer for it. That's no different in the mental health field. However, what is notable is the lack of raises and the resulting effect on the nature of the work force. This is where a union can make a clear difference.

We enjoyed annual step raises of 3% a year in my union job back in Washington. Just Imagine: recognition given for your years of service to an organization and your experience in the field. What a concept, huh?

We also negotiated the occasional 1% or 2% raise on top of step raises in our contracts. This helped employees absorb the regular shock of cost-of-living costs increases. It also gave a bit more incentive for employees to stay at the job. Hey, don't all good capitalists extol the value of incentives? Right...

Contrast that with my current, non-union job in Vermont. The staff at this agency, as already mentioned, have had just one insignificant raise in over five years. I've found at that this is also typical of other mental health agencies in the state -- no raises for about as many years. Just coincidence. Sure!

Staff have continually lost ground economically and have little incentive to stay in their jobs aside from the fear of not finding another one in a lousy economy. But larger numbers do start looking for other, better-paying work and leave the field or leave the state.

Another effect is that those that do stay are resentful that new hires make the same as they do. So much for recognizing and rewarding the loyalty of your employees, but we all know how that concept has been dead in this country for decades now. Employers just use this anger as another chip in their divide-and-conquer game and if you think they don't practice this "corporate" strategy in non-profits, then you aren't paying attention.

Yes, rapid staff turn-over is an issue with most mental health facilities. However, it appears to me to be a greater issue in the non-union workplace. The resulting negatives of this include higher recruitment and retraining costs, a less experienced work force, and, most importantly, the agency's clients suffering for it. Consistency is one key advantage to assisting people with mental health issues and the revolving door of care providers is, quite clearly, detrimental to effective care.

Going hand-in-hand with rates of employee turnover is the nature of employee make-up. Specifically, a more experienced workforce usually includes a more even distribution of those in different age groups.

Okay, I don't have hard stats here. It's also clear that employees don't stay as long with employers as they did a few decades ago. However, a few more do stick with an employer that offers annual step raises than they do with employers who have only offered one, insignificant raise in over five years. Yes -- the overall age of employees at my Vermont job does appear to be less than those back in my Washington job.

How about unions and benefits? How many union-bashers avoid this little topic when ranting about the evils of unions? So many of them are too busy enjoying their paid holidays or are walking to the store on their hour-long breaks. All brought to you courtesy of unions, thank you.

In terms of my experience, yes, there is holiday pay at my union non-union job, as there was at my union one. However, at the former, those that actually worked on Christmas day or Thanksgiving -- those that provided the residential and other services essential for 24/7 facilities -- received time and a half pay for working those days. This actually offers incentive to work when most everyone else wants to open presents with their families around a Christmas tree. As for the non-union job, well, you don't get to fully enjoy the holiday and you're getting the same holiday pay benefit as those that are at home. And for working the holiday? You get the same pay rate as any other day.

This also applies to shift differentials. For instance, it's like pulling teeth to find employees willing to cover the "graveyard" shift in residential mental health. Working those hours takes a documented (by studies) toll on you physically and mentally, plays havoc with sleep and other cycles, and throws a massive wrench into family and social life. The least an employer can do is offer a little more money to make the shift a bit more palatable. But in the non-union work site? Ohhhhh, no! Only if it's overtime.

Employee grievances and workplace safety are other key areas where a union presence makes a dramatic difference. In terms of the former, just not feeling alone in a fight empowers an employee. With the presence of a shop steward and/or union organizer if you are pursuing a grievance and need to meet with management, you are less intimidated and less likely to be fooled by employer strategies (sometimes outright tricks) to trip you up in the process. You also have the option of requesting arbitration if satisfaction is not received at the end of the grievance process.

Safety issues are pervasive in any health care job and that includes mental health. Employees are subject to assaults, exposed to biohazards, and required to do dangerous procedures such as passing medications and monitoring blood sugar tests involving needles, on a regular basis. The work is very physical as well, with frequent lifting and repetitive motions.

While all such facilities are subject to United States OSHA (Occupational and Safety Health Act) and other regulations, follow-through is often neglected more in the non-union sites. For example, my non-union site is very lax in terms of practicing various safety drills. This was not the case at the union site.

When negotiating a contract with my union site, safety language was built-in that may have been redundant on paper, but it increased awareness of safety standards amongst employees, provided reassurance that they had supported recourse in the event of a safety issue, and kept the employer more proactive in terms of a safe workplace.

At my union site, several co-workers filed grievances when significant safety issues that had adversely affected them were not addressed by site management.

At my non-union site? You send a memo to the manager, bring it up at a staff meeting and a month later....nothing at all has been done. So you send an email to someone higher up and they reply: take it up with your site manager.

Which brings up communication. It's minimal and top-heavy at the non-union agency. You hear what they want you to hear. At least at the union agency you would get a whole different perspective on workplace issues from the union. Granted, of course it was a bit....slanted. However, the union contract also required the creation of a labor-management committee, which is non-existent at my non-union workplace. This allowed for direct communication, on equal footing (at least on paper), without the presence of a union representative. A wide range of workplace issues/needs were addressed by this committee -- many of which exist in my non-union job and are not being addressed at all.

These are just a few of the most outstanding examples of differences that I've experienced of union vs. non-union workplace in the mental health field. I haven't even touched on the whole health care issue.

Ah, so you would think that my co-workers would be receptive to talking about the possibility of union membership, especially in a progressive state like Vermont. After all, state employees, teachers, and others in unions in Vermont are quite vocal and influential. But reread my opening. Whenever I broach the subject, that's the typical response I get. Usually, a co-worker changes the subject or walks away without comment.

Not to mention that those unions that do organize mental health workers in other states don't seem too interested in Vermont. Yeah, maybe the "dues" return isn't great enough for them to bother? The numbers just aren't there and they have bigger fish to fry? They don't return my phone or e-mail inquiries.

Ah, but I never said that unions are perfect. And I'll still take a union job over a non-union one any day.


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About the Author

Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published January 13, 2014