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Newly-organized mental health workers at 3 Minneapolis hospitals set to strike Tuesday

By staff |
May 22, 2022
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Workers in Twin Cities hospitals are preparing to strike
Workers in Twin Cities hospitals are preparing to strike (Fight Back! News/staff)

Minneapolis, MN - On Tuesday May 24, over 500 mental health workers will walk off the jobs at three hospitals in the Minneapolis metro area. The striking groups include mental health coordinators and psych techs, along with other job classes that perform mental health work.

All three of the groups have organized and joined SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and Iowa (SEIU HCMNIA) in the last eight months and are fighting for their first contract. They work at Allina Health’s Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, Allina Health’s Unity Hospital in the Twin Cities suburb of Fridley, and MHealth Fairview Riverside Hospital in Minneapolis.

While they work for three different hospitals, each with their own separate contract negotiations, the mental health workers are coordinating across the three locations and two health systems as they see the fight for a first contract with real improvements to working conditions and for safety in their jobs as a shared fight throughout the hospital industry.

During the COVID-19 pandemic they have seen a massive uptick in demand for mental health services and in the level of care needed. At the same time, hospital management has not increased staffing levels to meet the need. Instead, management cut benefits and instituted speed-ups which make it much harder for the workers to perform their job duties, manage their own lives in a healthy way, and make it harder to retain qualified staff.

The hospitals received millions in COVID Relief Funds, which ultimately did improve patient care or conditions for workers. The workers say that when they have raised the issue of safety and respect for their voices, management has not been willing to make and of the improvements needed and has instead responded by having pizza parties.

As a result, the mental health workers formed unions. They joined SEIU HCMNIA, Minnesota’s largest healthcare union. In the same eight-month period, nine other groups of hospital workers from the Allina and Fairview MHealth systems also formed unions with SEIUHCMNIA, amounting to around 1250 new union members from the two hospital systems. All of the new groups are currently in bargaining of their first union contracts with these two systems.

Workers at MHealth Fairview Riverside say that in their most recent round of bargaining, they laid out proposals around scheduling, vacation, holiday and sick time, and safety, along with their wage proposal. They are fighting for a wage scale that would take their job experience into account. They say that this would end what they called a “long time wage suppression” in their work.

Management has not responded throughout bargaining to the workers’ proposals to address safety on the job and declined to respond in bargaining to their wage scale proposals. So as a result, the workers are going on a one-day strike to show they employer that they are organized and ready to do whatever it takes for safety and for respect.

Chris Nohner, a psych associate at MHealth Fairview Riverside said, "We are here today because mental health is in a deepening crisis in the Twin Cities. In the last year more than 400 workers at two different organizations, MHealth Fairview and Allina Health, have voted to unionize. We did this in order to have a seat at the table to address the failures that have been caused by the underfunding and the lack of respect for this work by those in charge."

Nohner went on to say. “Now, as we are in the middle of Mental Health Awareness month, Minnesotans continue to face unprecedented challenges, causing mental health issues to surge. We are losing staff because of the low pay, lack of respect, and dangerous working conditions we face. At the same time hospital systems are closing facilities, CEOs and executives are making millions while frontline staff wages aren’t even keeping up with inflation. The results from that vote were clear. In a nearly unanimous vote, the groups at both hospitals voted yes to hold this walkout strike. This work is too important to be ignored and undervalued. Our patients deserve the stability that comes with staff who are supported by their employer to give the best care possible."

The workers will walk off the job on Tuesday, May 24, with picket lines starting at all three hospitals at 6 a.m. on Tuesday. They will picket their facilities until 11 a.m. At noon, a large unity rally will be held at MHealth Fairview Riverside Hospital, where around 350 of the workers are employed.