by Meseret Amare
When I heard about a violent patient escaping and injuring 11 of my coworkers, including one who left the facility on a stretcher, I was terrified — but sadly, not surprised. As a mental health tech at a psychiatric hospital in Tukwila, we work with patients going through recovery at all stages — and sometimes, they can be volatile. My employer, Cascade Behavioral Health, rejected our request for trained security staff to help when crises like these arose. We were at risk — and had had enough.
That’s why I joined what became a three-and-a-half-month strike at Cascade Behavioral Health Hospital. After months on the picket line filled with lively chants and community support, we won a new union contract that meets our demands for a safer workplace; benefits nurses, health care workers, and patients; and sets a new standard in behavioral health.
To win, we had to take on our hospital’s owner, Acadia Healthcare. This multibillion-dollar corporation is one of the biggest behavioral health providers in the U.S. When Acadia bought our hospital in 2014, the corporation made changes that included eliminating our hospital security.
As a nursing assistant for more than 12 years, I have provided care in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospitals, and in-home care, but I love making a difference in the lives of mental health patients the most. At Cascade, many of our patients are admitted from jail or a local emergency room. Many are young, have suffered from trauma of some kind, and are suicidal. They’ve been through a lot, and it is my priority to take care of their needs and provide them a safe place to recover. But, we have to care for our own safety as well. Sometimes patients become violent or aggressive — and that’s why we walked off our jobs to demand the security staff we needed.
At Cascade, our concerns are part of a larger struggle when it comes to health care and workers in general. The nation is in the midst of a behavioral health crisis, as COVID-19 has increased incidents of traumatic stress, unemployment, and social isolation. Thousands of workers in sectors ranging from fast food to manufacturing, to education and health care have gone on strike this year, demanding higher pay and better conditions.
Like many of my coworkers, I am an immigrant. I am part of a big Ethiopian community in Seattle, but I didn’t realize how powerful we could be by standing together against a big corporation. Through our union, we built stronger relationships with each other on the picket line every day and were joined by community leaders and other union members. We told our stories to the media. I joined a delegation of coworkers who went to a behavioral health conference in Washington, D.C., to deliver our demands to Acadia executives.
We refused to give up, and we finally won our demand for the security we needed. The security we will have is not police or security like at a store. We asked for and will get security staff who have trauma-informed training and can ensure that when a patient may harm themselves, us, or other patients, we have the backup support we need.
Solidarity is a winning ingredient we all need to use more. My story is proof that by sticking together through our union, workers can accomplish so much more for ourselves and for those we serve. We are back at the jobs we love, caring for some of the people in our communities who need it most.
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Meseret Amare is a member of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, the union representing health care workers across Washington. She lives in Seattle with her husband and three children.
📸 Featured Image: Health care workers rallied outside Cascade Behavioral Health before walking in after a 3.5-month safety strike. Photo courtesy of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW.
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