Neighborcare Health is a community-based system of medical and dental clinics located throughout Seattle. Many individuals and families who receive Neighborcare’s aid are low-wage working people, immigrants, unemployed, homeless or disabled people who get by on meager, fixed incomes. Economic insecurity is a common factor for much of the population served.
The provision of medical treatment and other important services requires a committed and knowledgeable staff. From physicians and nurses to pharmacists and social workers, on to nutritionists, receptionists and clerical workers — all contribute to quality patient care and the smooth functioning of clinical operations.
Patients and clients often grow very attached to their caregivers, whose steady presence offers a sense of stability and continuity. Thus the retention of proficient and dedicated staff is of prime importance.
When a respected provider or other dedicated employee leaves, patients and clients experience a sense of loss. In some cases, that feeling can be acute and even disorienting. This is especially true for individuals with no family or few friends, for whom loneliness is a daily experience.
It is in this spirit that hundreds of rank-and-file workers throughout the system of Neighborcare recently organized and voted to form a union with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1199NW, which represents more than 30,000 nurses, behavioral and health care workers across Washington State.
Prior to the union election, there was pervasive disgruntlement regarding management’s opaque and exclusive decision-making process. Communication with the rank-and-file was poor, and workers were rarely consulted on matters of importance to themselves and their patients.
Neighborcare’s own guiding principles emphasize social justice, cultural sensitivity, community and excellence. The organization is explicit in its advocacy to ensure “caring and trusting relationships” between providers and persons who come to them for compassionate help. Too much uncertainty and frustration had detracted from this noble goal and prompted many good people to leave. A positive alternative was sought, and employees voted overwhelmingly for the union.
SEIU, with 1.1 million members across North America, is the largest health care union in the country. Going back to early efforts in the 1950s to organize low-paid hospital employees in New York City, the union made common cause with the civil rights movement at that time. In Seattle the local union sprang from the collective decision of nurses at Group Health (now Kaiser Permanente) in 1983 to stand in solidarity and be taken seriously by management.
Contract negotiations are underway. Concerns expressed by the rank-and-file include the need for safe staffing that can bring about more reasonable workloads. Short staffing and increased workloads dilute quality. Of course, wages are a focus. In order to recruit and retain the best employees, the income scales at Neighborcare must be competitive with other health care systems. And employees want to be treated with the same humanity and dignity that all Neighborcare workers strive to provide patients and clients.
SEIU states emphatically: “We are ALL critical to the mission of Neighborcare and we should ALL be recognized.” The goal of our union is clear: “To make sure that we are fairly compensated for our skills and commitment.”
The rank-and-file’s campaign slogan is “Moving Neighborcare Forward.” The union effort came about in order to recognize the genuine worth of all employees and the profound contributions they make to the well-being of those in their care. The workers know and understand the needs of the people they assist. They now have a seat at the table where critical decisions are made.
SEIU epitomizes the promise of a reinvigorated labor movement — a must if this nation is to ever realize the ideals of social justice, racial and gender equality, and economic fairness. Surely SEIU’s proud legacy is consonant with Neighborcare’s espoused commitments, and in partnership will contribute positively to sustaining the organization’s admirable mission.
Joe Martin is a co-founder of the Pike Market Medical Clinic, now part of Neighborcare, and has been a downtown Seattle social worker for more than 40 years.
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