By Dante Strobino
Mental health workers join community activists to defend public services and jobs.
FIST photo: Dante Strobino
State mental health workers from across North Carolina spoke out before a “listening panel” at the Rebuilding Broken Places Community Development Center in Goldsboro on Feb. 5. They discussed the impact of inadequate working conditions and the policies and budget decisions that affect delivery of quality care for people with psychiatric and developmental disabilities.
Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, chaired the meeting. Community leaders, patient advocates, clergy, labor leaders, state legislators and international human rights experts attended.
The event, which was co-hosted by the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, United Electrical Workers Local 150 and the NAACP, was the public launch of a major statewide Labor and Civil Rights Coalition in Defense of the Public Sector. This coalition grew out of the fight for public workers’ collective bargaining rights, the campaign by UE 150 for a legislative Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights, and the growing struggle against the state’s looming $3.7 billion budget shortfall.
All these issues disproportionately affect African-American and Latino/a residents and workers. Budget cutbacks by Gov. Beverly Perdue and the state legislature could result in layoffs of up to 21,000 state workers and have devastating effects on the public service infrastructure — unless a significant fightback is waged.
The coalition is demanding that the state fill the budget gaps not by cutting workers and services but by taxing wealthy individuals and corporations.
The listening panel included Rep. Larry Bell; Sen. Doug Berger; Ajamu Baraka, director of U.S. Human Rights Network; James Andrews, president of the N.C. AFL-CIO; Clayola Brown, national co-chair of the NAACP Labor Committee, president of the A. Phillip Randolph Institute and former vice president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists; Reuben Blackwell, Rocky Mount City Councilperson; and Vicki Smith, director of Disability Rights N.C.
Della Singleton, a health care technician and UE 150 steward, gave the opening testimony. She spoke from her hospital bed where she was being treated for a bite by a patient, which exposed her to hepatitis. Her serious injury could have been prevented if her employer, the Caswell Developmental Center, had provided updated hepatitis and tetanus shots; she had not received these since 1994.
“They don’t care about us. This should have never happened,” stated Singleton.
A worker from Cherry Hospital, UE 150 Chapter President William Newsome read testimony for Todd Smith, a registered nurse, who was forced to work overtime and could not attend: “Employees are threatened when they have already worked 12-13 hours with no break and told to work 16 hours or more — ‘or else.’ Yet if that same employee were to nod off after 16 hours, he/she would be fired.”
Workers from Dorothea Dix Hospital, Central Regional Hospital and Murdoch Developmental Center also testified.
Baraka said, “What we have witnessed tonight is something that is occurring across this country and particular in this southern region. The persistent, systematic assault on the dignity of public workers and people is part of the direction of this country. It is going to require a collective response from all of us to turn it around.”
A legislative Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights is needed to institute fair standards for public sector workers to provide quality care in a state that denies them collective bargaining rights which would help establish enforceable standards. The working conditions place an undue burden on workers who are forced to work overtime in facilities that are understaffed. They earn wages that cannot support their families. It was pointed out that the annual median wage at all these facilities is less than $28,000; yet the workers live in areas that require more than $44,000 per year to sustain a family.
Moreover, the workers are blamed for the systemic problems of the Department of Health and Human Services, which include lack of adequate funding and resources by the state.
“How a society treats its people who suffer mental illness is a measure of that society,” said Rev. Barber. “How our society takes care of the people who take care of our friends and neighbors with mental illnesses is also a measure of that society. In North Carolina we need a Mental Health Worker Bill of Rights, and state workers need collective bargaining rights. Anything less is just plain wrong and unjust,” he stressed.
On Feb. 12 the Labor and Civil Rights Coalition in Defense of the Public Sector will join in the fifth annual Historic Thousands on Jones Street People’s Assembly Mass Demonstration. Together with thousands of community members and workers from the HKonJ organizations, they will participate in a march to the North Carolina Legislature where they will deliver a 14-point People’s Agenda. (See http://www.hkonj.com.)
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