Suicide hotline workers vote to unionize


More than 160 employees of nonprofit behavioral health provider Lines for Life are now union represented. In ballots counted Feb. 23, workers voted 74 to 42 to join AFSCME Local 1790.

Lines for Life operates a hotline for people experiencing mental health crises, focused on suicide prevention and substance abuse treatment. Local 1790 represents workers at a handful of nonprofits, including Cascadia Behavioral Health and Lifeworks NW.

The union campaign kicked off in December. The campaign represented new territory, AFSCME organizer Hannah Sloane-Barton said, in that it was an entirely remote organizing effort, involving some workers who are based out of state.

Remote organizing had some advantages. A lot of workers, like crisis intervention specialist Becca Ryan Roberts, had started at Lines for Life during the pandemic, so they hadn’t met their coworkers in person.

“It built a lot of community, even though it was remote,” Roberts said. “We organically developed a way to work together through remote channels—Zoom, Google Docs.”

The remote factor also made organizing equally accessible to workers in other states, who make up as much as a third of Lines for Life’s workforce.

Campaign draws attention from legislators

Midway through the campaign, a handful of state lawmakers wrote to Lines for Life CEO Dwight Holton, expressing concern over anti-union organizing from management. The letter was signed by Oregon state representatives Zach Hudson, Rob Nosse, Dacia Grayber, Rachel Prusak, and state senators Kayse Jama, Chris Gorsek, Deb Patterson, James Manning Jr. and Kate Lieber.

Oregon State Senator Rob Wagner wrote a similar letter to Holton, mentioning state funding the organization receives.

“I am sad, frustrated and angry to hear that you are using nonprofit or government resources to hire Bullard Law as a ‘management consultant’ in an attempt to advise employees not to pursue unionization,” Wagner wrote, “especially given that your organization has received substantial public funding to help serve the needs of Oregonians.”

The union organizing committee said lawmakers’ interest got the attention of management and helped the campaign.

After the election results, Lines for Life leadership shared a positive message with employees and committed to bargain in good faith, Sloane-Barton said.

Next step: first contract

Workers will now form a bargaining team and work with their union to identify priorities for the first contract negotiations.

Roberts, an organizing committee member, said workers want better staff ratios, including more team leads to support crisis workers, and more staff overall. Lines for Life is preparing for a higher call volume this summer, when the organization becomes the main Oregon call center hub for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s three-digit hotline.

“We wanted to unionize and show the changes we want now, to prepare ourselves for this major shift,” Roberts said.

Workers also want better health care coverage. Lines for Life provides coverage through Kaiser Permanente, but some workers in other states are out of the Kaiser service area and find it difficult to access care.

Workers also want to improve their access to mental health care. Sloane-Barton said that’s critical for crisis workers, given the calls they are taking.

“We don’t really know what taking call after call after call from people dealing with mental health crises, what kind of toll that can take on workers,” she said.


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