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.
DEMANDING A VOICE
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
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
EARS AND VOICE’
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
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
PLACE TO WORK’
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
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
SPIRIT OF CHANGE
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.