Hillsboro clinic the latest to unionize with AFSCME

By Don McIntosh

In mail ballots counted June 1, workers at Hawthorn Walk-In Center in Hillsboro voted 33-9 to join Oregon AFSCME. Hawthorn is an outpatient mental health and addiction clinic and the base of operations of the Washington County Crisis Team and a mental health response team that responds to 911 calls alongside sheriff’s deputies. It’s operated by the nonprofit Lifeworks NW.

The organizing win adds 61 members to Oregon AFSCME, and it’s part of a wave of union organizing in behavioral health, a sector that combines mental health and addiction treatment. 

When your boss tells you you don’t need a union, you definitely need a fucking union,” Skye Sodja

Workers at Hawthorn see patients who are in acute crisis, including those referred by police and hospitals. The new bargaining unit includes therapists, psychiatrists, chemical dependency counselors, case workers and support staff.

More than anything else, workers say they’re motivated to unionize by a belief in the importance of their work and a desire to keep doing it. With degreed case managers making around $21 an hour and thera pists making around $30 an hour, turnover has been high. 

“Experienced employees who have been doing this for years are leaving in droves,” said Skye Sodja, whose service coordinator job at Lifeworks is akin to a short term case manager. “There’s a nationwide shortage of people in this field.”

Sodja said the union campaign began late last year, but when it went public in April, managers seemed to be taken by surprise. They were not pleased.

“We respect your right to choose,” Lifeworks NW CEO Mary Monnat wrote to employees, “but we ask that you vote no in this election and give us a chance to continue to work together with you directly, without a third party between us.”

Soon, managers were holding workplace meetings at which they offered their opinions about why a union was not a good idea for workers.

“When your boss tells you you don’t need a union, you definitely need a fucking union,” Sodja told the Labor Press.

The first antiunion meeting was an open conversation, workers say, but at later meetings, questions and backtalk were discouraged.

“Management’s response probably solidified our ‘yes’ votes” said Hawthorn therapist Corey Pursel. “You could see right through it. It was very manipulative.”

Lifeworks service coordinator Meleah Nordquest said some supervisors seemed to take it very personally. But Nordquest says it wasn’t personal—workers saw the union as a way to have a stronger say over decisions that affect them.

“I think it’s exciting that we can go down this route and just be able to say that our voice matters,” Nordquest said.

The next step will be to come up with proposals and begin negotiating a first union contract. At a minimum, workers are likely to want a transparent regular wage and salary schedule, cost-of-living increases to keep up with inflation, and health insurance that would enable them to cover family members.

“We weren’t sure if this would work,” Pursel said. “But we’re happy that we did it.”

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