02/06/11 — Mental health workers protest

View Archive

Mental health workers protest

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 6, 2011 10:35 AM

Mental health workers from across North Carolina turned out Saturday night to share their experiences with a system many of them described as broken, and to rally for collective bargaining rights for state workers.

Many of the complaints voiced Saturday centered around worker safety and difficulties traversing the varying grievance processes at each hospital, though some also brought up issues of pay and compensation.

“Staff and patients are much more endangered now than ever before,” said Todd Smith, an RN at Cherry Hospital, in a statement read by a coworker to the group.

He went to say in his statement that nurses who come to Cherry from other hospitals “tell us they have never seen such a violent, out-of-control place.”

Others discussed difficulties in defending themselves against accusations of improper conduct and navigating the labyrinth of ever changing personnel rules.

The problem, they said, is a system designed to protect management and keep the workers from speaking out and defending themselves.

“I don’t have a voice,” said Sadie White, also at Cherry.

Hoping to remedy that, the workers and other advocates gathered at Rebuilding Broken Places to push for the passage of a Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights, as well as the repeal of N.C. General Statute 95-98, which effectively prohibits collective bargaining for public workers.

Among the provisions in the proposed bill of rights are:

• The right to a safe workplace and to protect oneself, with consideration for patients in mind

• The right to adequate staffing levels

• The right to adequate and up-to-date equipment

• The right to family supporting wages

• The right to refuse excessive overtime

• The right to a timely briefing about patient behavior

• The right to be treated with dignity and respect

• The right to fair and equal treatment

• The right to a grievance procedure

• The right to have input on decisions impacting working conditions

• The right of workers to evaluate performance of their supervisor

• The right to belong to a union and engage in collective bargaining.

But, said the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president of the state NAACP, it is the last provision that is real root of the problem, especially in the state’s mental health system.

And, he continued, the problems facing mental health workers go beyond even the lack of collective bargaining, that they’re issues of civil and even human rights.

He said that’s especially noticeable in Goldsboro where for its first 85 years or so, Cherry Hospital was the state’s psychiatric hospital for blacks.

“The issue of race and poverty has always had a unique intersection in the mental health system in this state and country. When you mess with mental health, you disproportionally affect people of color, both in terms of patients and in terms of workers,” he said. “How we care for the most vulnerable among us, and how we treat those who care for the most vulnerable among us is a moral question, a labor question and a question of civil rights.”

And he explained that he believes that with its passage in 1959, N.C. GS 95-98 was targeted, not at keeping the Charlotte Fire Department from unionizing, but at keeping black workers from gaining more power in negotiations with the state and local governments.

“It is one of the last Jim Crow laws,” Barber said.

The difference now, he continued, is that its lasting effects have not just harmed blacks, but anybody — any firefighter, teacher, police officer or mental health worker — who works in the public sector.

“It sends a message to the state administrators that they don’t have to listen to or act on any of the issues raised by state workers,” said Saladin Muhammad with the International Worker Justice Campaign, a project of UE150, the local union for mental health workers.

The lack of collective bargaining powers also puts mental health workers at risk when it comes to the current budget negotiations as Republican lawmakers look to cut services and possibly positions to fill the state’s $3.7 billion budget hole, Barber said.

And so he and others on the panel — including James Andrews, president of the N.C. state AFL-CIO union, Clayola Brown, National NAACP Labor Committee chairwoman and president of the A Philip Randolph Institute, Ajamu Baraka, director of the U.S. Human Rights Network, and Vicki Smith, director of Disability Rights N.C. — listened to the testimonies and complaints from the mental health workers pledged to continue working to improve their working conditions — which would also improve patient care.

“We have an intersection of common interests,” Ms. Smith said. “Our interest is to make sure people with disabilities are safe, and people who work with people with disabilities are safe.”