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A Night On The Picket Line

Bobby A. Summers

I spent last Saturday night on the picket line, where about 60 mental health care workers are striking the Parry Center, allegedly an inpatient treatment center for about 36 pretty mentally disturbed kids, ages eight through 14 years old. I use the word “allegedly” quite specifically, because whether the Parry Center is a treatment center, as its managers allege or is something else, is exactly what this strike is about.

    I got hooked into doing some picket duty through the familiar route. The union on strike is SEIU Local 503, my old union, and home of most of my friends. So a friend asked me what I was doing on Saturday night, and could I help picket? I said, “Sure!” (the American Saturday night party scene is vastly over-rated anyway.)

    I won’t bore the reader with a lot of details over what the workers have proposed in bargaining, or what the company has proposed. (More information can be found at http://www.seiu503.org, the union’s website.)

Suffice it to say, the Parry Center wants to break the union, and the mental health workers on strike want a wage where they can eat and pay the rent at the same time. But this strike is a very personal thing for the striking workers, because it gets to them right at the personal core of why they do the work they do.

    So, it’s cold and rainy, and I’m guarding a side entrance with three Parry strikers, let’s call them Amy, Sylvia and Ted because the real individuals might have to find similar work in the same town, and most employers don’t like prospective employees who might have job-related opinions and strike histories.

So, as I was saying, it’s cold and rainy and nighttime and nothing is happening; no scabs are trying to come in, and nobody is leaving. So, we got to talking….  Mostly because I didn’t have a clue what the strike was about and thought this might be a good time to ask.

    So I ask, “What finally put you guys over the edge? What convinced folks that you needed to strike?” A short pause, and Ted, maybe in his mid to late 20s says, “You know, I decided to strike when I heard that the Parry Center’s lawyer told the union’s negotiators that the kids aren’t a priority.”

    “You mean, like the kids don’t matter?” I ask.

Ted says, “Exactly, the kids don’t matter.”
    From there, Ted left to go home; he’d already been on the picket line 6 hours longer than he needed to. Meanwhile, Amy, Sylvia and I continued the conversation about what the Parry Center really did with its kids, how the place worked, where the therapy for these very disturbed kids really lay, what the treatment philosophy of the institution was really all about.

    Amy and Sylvia are both pretty experienced in the mental health field, and I believe both are registered psychiatric nurses. I have a degree in psychology and some social work training, so we got pretty technical in our discussion.

    It was pretty clear through our discussion that when kids did get better, it was because of the nurturing relationships that developed between the staff and the kids. These relationships seem to be the best medicine when it comes to drawing these kids out of the delusions in their heads and their fear of most every kind of social contact and relationship; just good old patience, care, and a consistency that said today’s people of help will be there tomorrow.

    “Wait,” I ask, “So if half of the kids have been moved out of the Parry Center to other Trillium facilities (Trillium is the holding company, they own three other similar institutions… incidentally, where there isn’t a union) because of the strike, isn’t that going to do major damage to the kids’ therapy; to the relationship building?”

    “Oh yes… Major damage”, Sylvia and Amy tell me. But this was just one little piece of the overall problem according to my informants. Amy told me about a woman, a mental health worker, who is an artist, and was able, time and time again, to draw these kids out through art.

“But she had to quit”, Amy told me. She couldn’t afford to work at the Parry Center any longer… Seems she couldn’t find a way to eat and pay the rent at the same time. Most of the staff being quite young, very recently out of the university, and Sylvia being maybe in her 40s, said, “Even if they (the Parry Center) paid off the student loan debts, that would help a lot.”

But the bottom line is that the folks who provide the real therapy are starving if they decide to stay at the Parry Center. So, they decide they have to move on, probably to something much more important in the world, like selling real estate. And this is the way the Parry Center likes it, it keeps the business costs down.

But the human cost is this, Amy told me about a kid she’s been working who said, “Why should I talk to you? I talked to the last two people and they left, and you will too”. So the business costs do stay down, because the treatment staff comes and goes like they are in a revolving door, and the kids shut down, and few anyway (except for some strikers, some of the kids’ parents, and a few others) are interested in the human costs of all this; it’s just business as usual.

    Sylvia told me things have only gotten worse over the last year or two. “You ever seen a hospital where the doctor goes by, looks into the room for a second, and then signs the chart that they visited and evaluated the patient?” Sylvia asked me. “Well, yeah, I know what you mean,” I said. “Well, that’s what the professional therapists do all the time around here… That’s because they get paid nothing, and their cases are too many.” So I guess they too just sign off… even if all they did was look in the room.

    Maybe an hour later, Sylvia, Amy and I decided that nothing was happening at the side entrance we were guarding, so we decided to go down to the main gate and see what was up with the main body of picketers. Here I ran into the chief spokesperson for the union’s negotiating committee, a guy named Mischa Novick. I don’t know Mischa well, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask a couple of questions.

“Hey Mischa,” I asked, “is it really true that the lawyer for the Parry Center told your bargaining team that the kids don’t matter?”

“Not really”, Mischa told me, “But he did say that the kids were not the Parry Center’s key priority. Priority number one for the institution is the financial endowment, and the second priority was something else financial…. The kids were the third priority according to the lawyer,” Mischa told me. “But he might as well have said the kids don’t matter, that’s the way we took it,” Mischa told me.

    On the way up to the Parry Center, my friend Andy Boeger, one of the research guys at SEIU Local 503, told me about the head guy at Trillium and the Parry Center; a guy named Kim Scott. “Makes $150,000 a year,” Andy told me.

“Jeez,” I asked, “is that the salary alone, or are there other little benefits and perks?”

“Well let’s say $178,000 per year….” “Bonuses,” is what Amy told me Kim Scott and the other upper managers get. “Bet he tells all his friends what a good guy he is and how he treats severely disturbed kids for a living”, Amy tells me with a sarcastic smile a few hours later. I learned a lot.

    So, the next morning, Sunday, as I usually do, I got up and took a look at the news on my computer. A major headline; The Sutter Hospital chain, a conglomerate of 13 hospitals in Northern California had locked out 7,000 SEIU Local 250 hospital workers in retaliation for the union doing a one-day strike on December 1. There’s nothing particularly new about US corporations crapping on workers, but this story had a funny twist. The strike wasn’t about wages, or benefits, pensions or any of the usual kind of stuff.

Instead, it seems SEIU Local 250 had called the strike to try to force Sutter to hold to minimum staff-to-patient ratios; a minimum staff-to-patient ratio that’s a piece of California law, which Sutter evidently routinely violates.

    So, Sutter Hospitals has “gone to the wall” in a death fight against its own workers, who themselves seem far more interested in the quality of care provided to patients than does the Sutter Corporation, with its  $465,000,000 annual profit and CEO, Van Johnson, who personally makes $2,339,500 per year.

    Sutter’s lockout turned out to be a fiasco. It was done so illegally and arrogantly and with such a rousing protest from labor-friendly politicians across northern California, that Sutter had to eat its own lockout. I know too that my old union, SEIU Local 503, is attempting to move heaven and earth to put the Parry Center and Trillium, its holding company, under the State of Oregon’s scrutiny, which is where every dollar going to the Parry Center and Trillium comes from. And time will tell if this works….

    But it has gotten to be a strange and odd world after 30 years of unrestrained, “no-holds-barred” capitalism in the United States. Used to be, many years ago, that capitalism was touted as the system that produced goods and services efficiently and cheaply, in everybody’s best interests. Well, that was then, and this is now.

    After Reagan, after Bush, and Wall Street’s love affair with Bill Clinton, and W. Bush, and Enron, and universal corporate “account-cooking,” and corporate bankruptcy as a way of getting out of your labor commitments, the veneer is off. Anybody with any ability to observe a wider social and political reality knows damned well that America is about greed and profit first, greed and profit second, greed and profit third, and quality products and services a long tenth… maybe.

    And it’s pandemic, this profit, corporate growth, and “screw the product-screw the workers-screw the public” mentality. It’s everywhere in the US. I went in last week to buy more talk time for my cell-phone and the whole store had changed. AT&T had just merged with Cingular. The store had been totally re-decorated, the same employees were still there, but now they all wear bright uniforms with the new corporate colors. All the products are on high-tech display; the cell-phones with cameras built in, new options added faster than you can think, all with financial plans that will have you paying for your cell phone service for years to come. Yet 70% of the time, I still have to go outside and face in a general north-west direction in order to make or receive a call on my cell-phone, and that hasn’t changed in two years I’ve had the damned thing.

    What a strange contradiction it is! So now, it’s the workers who are insisting that the product matters; not the corporations…. And some workers are ready to fight, like those at the Parry Center and those at Sutter Hospital chain. And where there is no union, and no fight, workers live consciously neck deep in the their cynicism and the cynicism of their employers.

    So, back to Sylvia, Amy, the Parry picket line, and me:

I told Amy and Sylvia that I wanted to bounce an idea off of them:

“What would you guys think”, I asked, “if instead of banks making loans on the basis of their maximum profit, we re-did the banking system in this country so that when a firm asked for a loan, the loan was looked at in terms of whether it helps or hurts the community, whether the firm pays a decent wage or not, whether the loan will harm the environment or not, whether the loan will add to, or detract from the quality of peoples’ lives? And if the loan is in the social interest, you get a discount rate…. If the loan isn’t in the social interest, the firm gets gouged on the interest rate, or the loan just gets rejected?” 
Amy just smiled, she’s a trooper and a fighter, and knows that the fight is for the long haul. Sylvia said, “What a good idea!” I felt like maybe I had more fight left in me than I thought. It was a good night.   

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