Navigation Bar

Home -> UE News ->  Feature Archives -> Article -> Part Two

UE 150 • The North Carolina Public Service Workers' Union


Building UE Among
North Carolina
Health and Human
Services Workers


DHHS Workers are Tired of Being Disrespected and Underpaid


Local 150 Leads the Fight Against Closures, For a People-Oriented Budget

Visit the
UE Local 150


DHHS Workers
Are Tired
Of Being
And Underpaid
Judy Bryant and Donald Robertson stand for UE at Dorothea Dix Hospital.

Judy Bryant and Donald Robertson stand for UE at Dorothea Dix Hospital.

I put my life on the line every day, with disease and danger," Della Singleton says matter of factly. A developmental technician at the Caswell Center in Kinston, N.C., she works with the mentally challenged. "Our patients get the best care in the world, every day."

Singleton thinks it would be "wonderful" to make as much as $10 an hour.

Dedicated and hardworking. Disrespected and underpaid.

Both descriptions apply with equal force to the front-line workers employed by the Department of Health and Human Services of the State of North Carolina. These are the women and men who provide direct services to the mentally ill, the mentally challenged and impaired, frequently without adequate resources or levels of staffing.

This contradiction is propelling their involvement in UE, despite law that forbids formal collective bargaining between the state and unions. Workers are organizing, demanding a say over their conditions and insisting on dignity on the job.


To Vicki Wilson, a health technician with 11 years at Cherry Hospital, the union means having a voice. "When we voice concerns, and we have made a lot of suggestions, we never hear anything from it," she says.

Cherry, a psychiatric hospital located in Goldsboro, employs some 500 health care technicians and 200 nurses, as well as housekeepers, food service, maintenance and clerical workers — about 1,100 employees in all.

In the horseshoe-shaped buildings on Cherry’s wide campus, the staff provides both long-term care and short-term, rapid rehabilitation. Cherry has a 24-hour admission policy. There are also a geriatric unit, nursing care facility, and a legal building, where staff handle court cases. Cherry also has transitional housing, where patients learn community skills prior to the reintegration into society. Nearby, a separate facility houses children aged 3 to18.

For Wilson, like many workers at Cherry and other DHHS facilities, the most galling problem is the understaffing that leads to mandatory overtime and creates dangerous working conditions. Cherry workers object to being forced to work double shifts. "When we go to work we never know when we’re going home," she says.

Racial discrimination in promotion and job transfers is another workplace problem Wilson and other workers would like to see eliminated.

The union offers "strong backing to resolve problems," according to William Newsome. As he sees it, "Cherry staff want policies to be open and fair, no special treatment. They want to eliminate forced stay-overs, an end to understaffing, nurse shortages and health care technician shortages." The basic remedy to those problems is simple, he says: "management should hire." Also, Newsome says, Cherry workers need "proper pay."


The presence of UE on the Cherry campus has already created a change in management’s outlook, Newsome says.

A change is long overdue in Thelma Clark’s opinion. She has been in the DHHS system for more than 25 years. "The experience has not always been pleasant," in part because a lack of professional standards, Clark says. Her background in rehabilitation services, Clark worked at the O’Berry mental retardation facility before joining the Cherry staff.

"Supervisors [at O’Berry] are authoritarian," says Clark. "They tell you what to do and to carry it out."

"Not anymore," interjects Annie Dove, an O’Berry worker. That’s due to the union, she says.

O’Berry, also located in Goldsboro, has more than 500 health care technicians out of a workforce of 880, which also includes housekeepers, maintenance workers, occupational therapists and others. The technicians help bathe and feed patients, whose ability to function varies widely. The large campus contains various clusters of buildings where patients are housed and trained, shops where wheelchairs are custom-fitted are repaired, and medical facilities.

Employed at O’Berry for nine years, Dove is a health care technician involved in direct patient care to the visually impaired. She works second shift.

The union is important, Dove says, to obtain "changes we’ve needed for years," especially to stop being "treated like second-class citizens."

"I’d like to see an opportunity to sit down with the administration people and bring forth some of our ideas," says Dove. To make that happen, she’s going to continue to build the union. "I would like to see more involvement from other members," Dove says. "I’m going to keep talking and trying to encourage my co-workers."


Low pay is among the issues at the Caswell Center: "Why should the one who’s working the hardest be living the lowest?" asks Della Singleton. A mental retardation center, Caswell serves a client population of more than 560. A total workforce of 1,700 (1,500 union-eligible) provides a variety of services and care on a sprawling campus located in Kinston.

As a development technician, Singleton attends to the daily life needs of Caswell residents. "There are those who can’t do anything," she says. "I assist them with feeding, and dressing themselves. I become their eyes, ears and voice. You become a parent to an adult, to a person with an adult body but the mentality of a child."

The work is physically demanding, stressful and not without risks. The responsibilities of Singleton and other technicians include recording of data, developing behavior plans, in-service training and team meetings.

Due to the understaffing and mandatory overtime, Singleton says, "I feel more aches and pains. It’s stressful, it’s killing me emotionally and physically. When do you have time for your family or yourself?" Added to the stress of the job at Caswell is the strain of working other jobs to make ends meet. Due to the low pay levels, Singleton points out, "people work part-time or a second full-time job. You be dragging, but it’s the need. I’ve got to meet the bills, eat. I have a child who’s sick and needs medication."

Reports of UE organizing at O’Berry and Cherry "was like a blessing, like an answer to a prayer, " Singleton says.


Larry Lindsey, a special education teacher who has been at Caswell for three and one-half years, knows about unions. He says, "I came from another state, and have been a member of the teachers’ union and the Teamsters’ union when I worked in a factory. The difference is apparent. A union place is a better place to work."

As teachers’ salaries are not set by DHHS, Lindsey is well aware that the union is unlikely to have any direct impact on his pay level. He’s joined the union to back co-workers like Singleton as well as to " have a voice in what goes on."

Lindsey’s goal is a large and active union membership at Caswell and a stewards’ system. He’d like to see UE Local 150 expand to all state facilities. "My feeling is that if state employees can unite and organize we can be a powerful influence in the state," he says.

Lindsey tells us, "This could be a super place to work with just a few modifications. I’m hoping the union will make a difference."


The historic Dorothea Dix Hospital opened in 1856 due to the work of the reformer for whom the psychiatric facility is named. Workers here are looking for a new era of progressive reform — investment in Dix, and the collective strength of the union to address workplace problems. "Workers are not getting treated fair," says Donald Robertson, first-shift housekeeper and chief steward. "I figured the union could step in and give us a hand."

At Dix, where workers began organizing in 2000, Robertson reports, "the union is having regular meetings and passing out information to all of our workers." And "when someone gets into trouble, they at least know who to come to." The union has been making an effort to prosecute grievances, and as a result, Robertson says, "the supervisors have more respect now than they did before."

With the union, says Judy Bryant, "we’ve got a little of our freedom back."

The health care technician observes that because of UE there’s more dialogue now between workers and management, especially since the hospital director instituted a weekly forum.

A union goal is to create a safer work environment by adding staff, says Bryant, who works with long-term male patients. "The personnel office has stacks and stacks of applications. We’re very short of staff and it’s getting very dangerous," she says.

"I’ve been knocked unconscious, a tray flung at me by a patient struck me in the nose," Bryant tells us in the hospital canteen. "No one appreciates that we put ourselves on the line for those who can’t help themselves."

"We’ve been getting garbage for pay," she continues, "because the staff works with those who have been abandoned. No one wants these people."

Dedicated and hardworking, DHHS staff are gaining dignity, and a strong new voice for quality jobs and quality care with UE Local 150.



UE News - 06/01

Home -> UE News ->  Feature Archives ->  Article -> Part Two

Home • About UE • Organize! • Independent Unions • Search • Site Guide • What's New • Contact UE
UE News • Political Action • Info for Workers • Resources • Education • Health & Safety • International • Links

Copyright © 2003 UE. All Rights Reserved