California social workers join mental health strike; we should all pay attention

This week roughly 2000 mental health workers struck Kaiser Permanente, highlighting gross understaffing and inadequate care for patients. The striking workers include therapists of various stripes – psychologists, addiction counselors, and social workers among them. All are members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) – https://nuhw.org/, a California leader in agitating for a substantive worker voice in decision-making and for quality care for patients.

Mental health professionals are, of course, reluctant to strike; they are acutely aware that withholding their labor means that patients do not receive vitally needed services. That they feel compelled to strike nonetheless underscores the gravity of of the situation in regard to their working conditions and the substandard quality of patient care.

The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS.org) has covered the strike, interviewing a number of workers on the picket line. According to Anessa, a clinical psychologist from Kaiser Vallejo with 20 years experience, described conditions at Kaiser. “I can’t see my patients except every 6-8 weeks at a time. My patients are literally languishing, out contending with their own crises for weeks and weeks and weeks and feel so hopeless that they have no other options but to hurt themselves, but to suicide. And if they do try to get more help, they’re then going to our emergency departments. They’re going to higher levels of care when all I want to do is treat my patients.”

According to NUHW, Kaiser Permanente suffers a more than 10 percent annual turnover rate, resulting in chronic short staffing, stress and burnout. As reported by WSW, Jeremy, a licensed marriage and family therapist for Kaiser Walnut Creek, explained, “The reason I’m out here also is that good patient care can’t be provided by clinicians who are impaired by their working conditions. Our clinicians are so stressed, overworked, and are really passionate about the work that we do. They’re very skilled, but we can’t do great under conditions like this. We’ve been bleeding therapists.” Issues of poor quality care and oppressive working conditions are not new. “It’s been 10 years at least,” said Anessa, “and we have not been able to figure out how to really see patients in a way that all their needs are met and to be able to then have clinicians who are not completely burnt out in the system.”

Also contributing to high turnover are deteriorating worker wages and benefits. Proposed pay increases, according to NUHW, are less than half the rate of inflation – this despite Kaiser Permanente raking in record profits year after year, $8.1 billion in 2021 alone.

It is now an all-too-familiar, if detestable, story – health care in the U.S., both physical and mental care, is just another commodity, simply another marketized means of capital accumulation for the elite investor class. Indeed, health care, in the social work perspective a human right, has become a disturbingly clear expression of class war, with both workers and patients seen as a source of extracted value. Workers have little choice but to use the leverage of their withheld labor in the fight to improve conditions for their clients/patients and themselves.

Social workers everywhere, certainly in Mississippi, should pay close attention.

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