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Amidst crisis in North Carolina

Mental health workers struggle for justice

Published Jun 14, 2008 8:00 AM

The mental health care system in North Carolina is in a state of crisis. More than 1,000 workers are put out of work due to injuries each year. Since December 2000, at least 82 patients have died in ways that raise questions, including homicides and suicides. Workers are incredibly underpaid, with health care technicians, the bulk of the front-line workers, earning on average less than $24,000 per year and forced to work incredible amounts of overtime in unsafe and understaffed conditions to pay their bills. North Carolina mental hospitals discharged 1,182 mental health care patients and sent them to live in homeless shelters last year. Many of them soon entered the state’s overcrowded prisons. More than $400 million in state funds were wasted in the state’s privatization efforts over the last six years.

On May 29th, more than 200 workers attended the UE 150 Mental Health Workers Public Hearing. Before the hearing, workers held a public rally to expose the conditions at the state hospitals, demand Dix hospital stay open at least one year longer and demand a Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights.
WW photo: Dante Strobino

Members of the NC Public Service Workers Union, UE Local 150, have launched a Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights campaign to promote standards that protect and guarantee essential needs and rights for mental health workers, to provide quality care for patients and in general to address the present crisis.

Common concerns about the operation of the state mental health institutions stem from the failures of a Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reform plan approved in 2001 by Governor Michael Easley.

The bosses tried to blame the crisis on the workers. In February, when the crisis was first being exposed, front page articles in the Raleigh News & Observer claimed workers were responsible for the violence. One article, titled “Caregivers abuse patients, and get away with it” (March 1), was part of a five-part series about the injuries faced by patients and the wasting of $400 million by privatized local mental health providers. Workers were also blamed for the loss of accreditation in three of the four state psychiatric hospitals, resulting in the loss of federal Medicaid funding totaling more than $10 million.

The state of North Carolina gives more than $1 billion in tax breaks to the rich and corporations each year. Put into that context, this blaming of workers is no accident. It is part of a strategy to shape public opinion to pose the needs and rights of the workers as being in conflict with the needs and rights of patients, instead of their being interconnected.

“Injuries have increased among employees and patients,” said Larsene Taylor, 58, a health technician at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, N.C., and chair of UE 150’s DHHS Council. “We care about these patients and we’re not going to take the blame for it.”

The bosses responded with even worse policies. For example, at Broughton Hospital in Morganton, N.C., Interim Hospital Director Dr. Art Robarge passed a “hands off” policy—meaning that workers cannot put their hands on patients even if they get violent—making it nearly impossible for workers to do their jobs and with no regard for their safety.

Broken backs from rushing through understaffed wards and falling, urinary tract infections from sitting one-to-one with patients for excessive hours, and being stabbed in the abdomen with scissors by an unwatched patient are just a few of the hundreds of examples of injuries suffered by workers that unnecessarily occurred over the last few months. Many patients have died or suffered permanent injuries.

“We need more staff,” said Rosie Hargrove, UE 150 member from John Umstead Hospital in Butner, N.C., as she stood picketing at the entrance to the Dorothea Dix hospital campus on June 6. “And we need better pay to keep the staff we have from leaving.”

Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights Campaign

In order to fight back, the workers have increased the influence of their union, UE Local 150, through the Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights campaign. On March 29, an assembly was convened in Greensboro, N.C., by UE 150 members in DHHS institutions throughout the state to begin to lay out the direction of the campaign. Since then, workers across the state have organized rallies at their workplaces to highlight their working conditions.

Then on May 29, more than 200 workers from all over the state attended a UE 150 public hearing to address the crisis. Workers were able to give testimony about their injuries to a panel consisting of five state senators and representatives, prominent community leaders and other decision makers, including the Rev. John Mendez of the Progressive National Baptist Convention; African-American community activist Octavia Rainey; Kendra Jason of the Student-Worker Alliance at North Carolina State University; civil rights lawyer Lewis Pitts; and Ashwini Sukthankar, director of the International Commission for Labor Rights from India.

At the end of the hearing, the Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights was read aloud by everyone in the audience. The document’s demands include the right to adequate staffing levels, a safe workplace and the right to defend oneself, the right to deny forced overtime, family-supporting wages, the right to evaluate one’s boss, freedom from racism and sexism, collective bargaining and more.

Next: Privatization, public institutions and capitalism.

Strobino is an UE organizer and a member of the youth group FIST—Fight Imperialism, Stand Together.