By COLIN STAUB
Workers at Lines For Life want a union. Lines For Life, a Portland nonprofit led by former U.S. attorney Dwight Holton, operates suicide prevention and substance abuse helplines.
Oregon AFSCME says a strong majority of the 160 employees who are eligible for union representation signed union cards, and on Dec. 21, the union asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold a representation election. Ballots will be mailed out Jan. 25 and be counted Feb. 23.
Workers at Lines For Life say demand has been rising for behavioral health services during the pandemic.
“Right now it feels like our workplace is in crisis—as we attempt to support those who are in crisis,” said Lines For Life crisis intervention specialist Marissa Gordinier. Gordinier said the need for mental health support has increased in connection with COVID-19 in part because more people are experiencing isolation. That increased workload has strained Lines For Life workers. Workers tried staff meetings and one-on-one conversations with managers, but concluded that unionizing is the best way to advocate for their needs.
The campaign has been in the works since mid-2021, when workers contacted the union, says Oregon AFSCME organizer Eddie Charlton. Charlton said issues at Lines For Life are common to many behavioral health nonprofits: “There’s a lot of turnover and burnout.”
According to its annual report, Lines For Life had 162,241 calls on its crisis lines in 2020—a 32% increase over 2019.
Gordinier says workers expect another big increase in workload this summer, when the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) launches a 911-like phone or text line for individuals experiencing mental health crises.
Lines For Life was asked to voluntarily recognize the union, or at least remain neutral during the vote, but officially declined. The nonprofit has retained Bullard Law as its legal representation. Bullard has advised employers in numerous anti-union campaigns, including at Mid-Columbia Center for Living.
Lines For Life did not respond to a call from the Labor Press.
Lines For Life is the latest behavioral health nonprofit to see a union campaign in recent years. Workers at Hawthorn Walk-In Center, a Hillsboro clinic operated by nonprofit Lifeworks NW, voted to unionize in June 2021. In 2020, workers at Columbia Gorge-based Mid-Columbia Center for Living went union, and more workers at Portland-area Cascadia Behavioral Health voted to unionize.