Mental health workers strike: ‘Allina does not respect us in the slightest’

Mental Health workers on strike at Abbott Northwestern hold a rally on the picket line.

Mental health workers at two Twin Cities hospitals wrapped up a three-day strike Wednesday, with union members rallying on the picket line outside Abbott Northwestern and vowing not to be bullied in contract negotiations with Allina Health.

“It has been quite evident that Allina does not respect us in the slightest,” said Jordan Cich, a senior mental health coordinator at Abbott and member of the union’s bargaining team.

The strike impacted over 130 workers at Abbott and Unity Hospital in Fridley, who unionized with SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and Iowa one year ago to bargain for better wages and safer working conditions.

Union members called a strike for the second time since talks began last winter, in part, because Allina has refused to outline their benefits – like health insurance, paid time off and leaves of absence – in the proposed contract. Union Vice President Brenda Hilbrich, a veteran negotiator, called it an extremely unusual approach.

“The employer has taken a very surprising position on not including those things in our contract,” Hilbrich said. “And we are not going to settle a contract without those items included.”

The strike authorization vote drew 98% support, as Allina’s delay tactics at the bargaining table have only added to longstanding frustrations over shortstaffing, safety and lack of respect from their employer, Cich said.

“In January, members of our bargaining team were voicing our concerns about staffing and violence in the workplace, and all Allina replied was, ‘We don’t want to hear any more of your sob stories,’” she recalled.

As they did during a one-day strike last May, Allina workers were poised to walk out this week at the same time as 350 mental health workers at M Health Fairview, who also unionized with SEIU Healthcare last year.

But Fairview workers postponed their strike after productive bargaining sessions last week, and after a 12-hour bargaining session Monday, the bargaining team reached a tentative agreement with the employer on a first union contract.

If ratified, union members at Fairview will see average wage increases around 6% immediately, with another 2.75% increase in March. Other highlights include additional paid time off and “initial grievance procedures to address staffing concerns,” according to the union.

Throughout their union drive and in negotiations, mental health workers have pointed to a shared interest being treated and compensated as professionals. Staffing issues persist, union members have said, because providing mental health care takes a steep toll on workers’ own mental and emotional well being – and sometimes their physical health, too.

Fairview psych associate Jenny Webster, who has 20 years of experience at Riverside Hospital, said winning a first contract is a step toward stabilizing care in her facility.

“Because of our efforts, we reached the best deal possible for our important work, and I am proud of what we accomplished,” said Webster. “So many people have experienced mental health issues themselves or to a loved one, especially during the pandemic. Raising wages and getting a first contract will mean better care for our patients.”

Now, it’s up to Allina Health to get serious about doing the same for mental health staff and patients, Cich said.

“We want to have enough staff to support not only our patients, but each other as well,” she said. “What we do every day can be very dangerous. We deserve to be protected at work, respected at work and compensated for the work that we do.”

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