Monday, September 3, 2012

Labor Unions in Social Work?

Today is Labor Day in the U.S. - a day set aside to recognize and the American worker. The holiday is indelibly linked with the nation's history with labor unions, organized groups of workers than band together to increase their bargaining power and relative influence compared with "management."

On the whole, labor unions have made a positive contribution to society by successfully combating abusive working conditions, hours and pay. However, there is also a down side to unions. One that has made headlines in the current recession is that unions can make it very difficult for employers (both private companies and the government) to adjust to meet economic demands. If you have to give everyone raises (in spite of shrinking profits), offer the most expensive health insurance, and other fringe benefits (holidays, vacation, retirement matching...whatever), etc., your only option is to lay off workers (even if you need a certain number of staff to continue operating). Suddenly, unions don't seem quite as great, when they directly cause some of their members to lose their jobs.

And when it isn't a factory that can't put out as many widgets as it used to, but instead a service we depend upon - for example, having enough teachers, police, firefighters - it's not just the people who lose their jobs that pay a price, but everyone. Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not anti-union, and I'm not advocating that we abolish them (lest we revert to abusive employment practices). What I am saying is that we should be conscious of both the benefits and the costs.

So what about unions in the Mental Health field? They exist - I know because I am in one. One of my jobs is unionized. That means that everyone who isn't "management" either has to join - pay union dues and get a vote - or decide not to join, still pay for the privilege of "benefiting from collective bargaining" but not get a vote. So, I joined.

Like unions more generally, unions in Mental Health seem to be a mixed bag. The union has done important lobbying and advocacy on behalf of Mental Health services and clients/consumers, working to keep these services in the State budget, and advocate for legal changes such as parity, and safety regulations for staff. This sort of action speaks to the heart of Social Work's mission and values. I also think the union is good to have to ensure fair treatment of nonprofessional staff, who have little training and make low wages overall.

However, when it comes to clinical staff, I think the union is more a hindrance than a help. Because the union is based on the idea that there is a clear division between "workers" and "managers." That means that unions also make it pretty hard to progress up the chain from worker to manager - from clinician to supervisor. Unions don't want to lose members (as they do when someone is promoted), and they don't want to lose a position - they don't want an existing position that is considered "union" to become management. For someone to be promoted, someone else has to be hired for the vacated union position. If the company can't afford to hire additional staff...well, no promotion is likely. I lost an opportunity for promotion because the union would not release my position, and it was very frustrating - especially when I have been paying union dues all along!

Then there is the issue of client care. During the last round of contract negotiations, when the company I work for argued that they could not afford to pay everyone a 3% raise, and continue to pay the % of health insurance premiums the union was demanding, the union voted to strike. When it comes to human services, strikes seem wrong to me. It's basically saying that the monetary dispute between the union and management is more important than client care. Particularly when it comes to therapy, it's not like someone can really substitute for a striking worker. Unions figure that clients who don't get services become another voice to pressure management into agreeing to the unions terms...but at what cost to the clients? What is the impact on high-risk populations, or those who have attachment issues? It doesn't seem responsible to me. Thankfully, a negotiation was worked out prior to the scheduled strike at my company last year...but if the strike had happened, I would have worked regardless. There are more important things than pay and benefits.

6 comments:

  1. thanks for sharing.

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  2. I completed a masters in social work which - of course - included an internship at a non-profit mental health agency and my husband also has his masters in social work and his chemical dependency license. He is also just a couple of months away from earning his LISW credential. After my own experience and considering my husband's current experience. I believe, whole heartedly that social work needs to have a strong union to advocate for better work conditions as well as better pay. Even with the above credentials he makes just $32K per year. On top of that they set unrealistic expectations for utilization rates. I could go on an on as to how the profession is treated poorly. For a social worker to meet utilization rates - they can't take vacation and they have to inhale their lunch (if at all). ... It has been a most frustrating experience. They definitely need a union.

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  3. Agencies and organizations are going to continue to abuse social workers unless and until they can form a collective voice to say 'no more.' Nurses and teachers (other 'helping' professions) were treated like dirt until they unionized. It's not perfect, but it's much better for them, and they receive more pay and power than before they were unionized. It is past time for social workers to unionize. We cannot be effective for our clients/patients if our basic needs aren't being met.

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  4. I agree! Social workers need to advocate for themselves more! We are highly educated and grossly underpaid!

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  5. Hi Natalie! Thanks for sharing your experience. I'm wondering: are you able to tell us which union you belong to as a clinician? I'm a recent MSW grad exploring the question of unionization in social work, and I haven't found much information about models currently in practice, so I'm curious to hear how yours works. Thanks!

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  6. I am wondering what resources there are to support a foreign-degree social worker who is trying to do the required course work to...earn an American degree, but keeps getting a different story for what is actually required. Meanwhile, he works hard every day, as a bilingual social worker at a housing development for low income mostly immigrant farm workers. Thanks.

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