Minnesota mental health workers strike: ‘Those who provide care have no support’
Jigme Ugen, SEIU executive vice president, joins mental health care workers on the picket line after Allina CEO threatens to call the police on striking workers. | Rebecca Pera / People's World

MINNEAPOLIS—Mental health workers represented by the Service Employees International Union in Minneapolis and Fridley, Minn. initiated a three-day strike last week after Allina Health bosses refused to negotiate a first contract that includes safe staffing, adequate health care benefits, basic workplace protections, and fair wages during a period of skyrocketing inflation and an ongoing pandemic.

The recently unionized psychological associates, behavioral assistants, and other mental health care workers at two Allina Hospitals, Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis and Mercy-Hospital Unity Campus in Fridley, are caregivers in the highest-risk environments in the hospital system, frequently facing physical assault on the job and repeated exposure to other forms of workplace violence, such as being threatened with weapons and ongoing verbal abuse.

Jigme Ugen, who works locally for SEIU, attended the picket line in Minneapolis this week. “These mental health workers are traumatized on the job while also having to keep the patients and hospitals safe.” Ugen explained how at the Allina Health clinic in Buffalo, Minn., a patient recently brandished a gun while being treated by mental health workers.

Despite SEIU’s suggestions that hospital bosses implement safety measures to ensure mental health workers are protected, some of which include safeguarding pregnant workers from unstable situations, screening patients for weapons before entering the facility, and increasing safe staffing levels, Allina bosses have refused.

“Patients who are going through withdrawals and traumatic experiences themselves,” explains Ugen, need to be treated with dignity, and in order to do that, the frontline workers who are responsible for helping patients heal need to be protected from precarious work environments with alarmingly high rates of violence. “The people who provide the care have no support.”

On Wednesday afternoon, October 5, after almost three days on the picket line, mental health workers marched to the office of Allina CEO Lisa Shannon to request that she come down from her office to meet with them. Instead of complying with workers’ demands, she threatened to call the police on striking workers.

This is not the first time that mental health caregivers have been forced to strike. After voting to unionize a year ago with SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and Iowa, workers were forced to walk off of the job in May after hospital administrators refused to negotiate in good faith. According to workers, this was a direct result of the corporate healthcare giant using stalling tactics in order to avoid bargaining with the newly unionized mental health professionals.

Kellie Benson, a senior mental health coordinator, noted on Monday, October 3, during a press conference on the first day of the strike, “It has been a long year and long battle. We keep coming to the table and Allina keeps coming with nothing for us.” Due to Allina’s stonewalling, union members voted with 98% support to authorize this week’s strike.

Minnesota essential workers’ demands for safe staffing and support for mental health are not unique to SEIU workers. Throughout the last year, Minneapolis has seen its nurses and teachers walk off the job, citing dangerous understaffing, chronic overwork and underpay, and lack of mental health resources as key reasons.

A month ago, 15,000 Minnesota nurses, some from the same Allina hospitals, hit the bricks in the nation’s largest private nursing strike, demanding that hospital bosses allow nurses to be involved in decision-making about staffing and safe working conditions.

In March 2022, Minneapolis teachers and educational support professionals held the picket line for a month to demand safe staffing in the form of smaller class sizes and sufficient quantity of mental health professionals at every school.

Allina corporate health system’s refusal to negotiate to protect its most vulnerable workers has resulted in extremely high turnover, which only contributes to the problems associated with unsafe staffing levels. Ugen noted that presently Allina has approximately 40 open positions in mental health that remain unfilled.

There has been a significant increase in the need for mental health workers and services during the pandemic. One in five adults and one in six children live with a mental health diagnosis. Despite these statistics, Allina bosses have continuously opposed providing sick leave and benefits to workers hurt on the job and refused to negotiate safe staffing levels to prevent workplace violence. “Mental health touches everyone, regardless of race, gender, or affiliation,” said Ugen. “That’s why we are asking that they respect us, protect us, and pay us.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Rebecca Pera
Rebecca Pera

Rebecca Pera is a former Twin Cities-area teacher.

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