People who suffer from alcoholism or mental illness are now just a vote away from getting $48 million in new funding for treatment and support services -- a package that the King County Council and executive created to keep them out of jail and get them started on recovery. Standing between the sufferers and the council's final vote on the funding, however, is a dispute between the county's mental health providers and Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union.
On Oct 15, King County Executive Ron Sims released a proposed 2008 budget that includes $48 million in funding for a new Mental Illness and Drug Dependency Action Plan, which the council passed unanimously Oct. 8.
A year in the making, the plan includes $11 million in treatment services for those not covered by Medicaid, $6 million for a new adult crisis center where people could be sent instead of jail, and $4 million to hire more mental health case workers. It would be paid for by a one-tenth of one percent sales tax increase that the 2005 Legislature gave county councils the authority to pass in order to fund such services.
So far, seven other counties have passed the tax. But mental health providers say they're worried the King County Council may falter under pressure from SEIU, which has been seeking a card-check neutrality agreement for the past 18 months with the 16 agencies that provide the county's outpatient mental health services under contract.
Under such an agreement, the union could recruit members without hindrance at Harborview Medical Center, Community Psychiatric Clinic, Highline West Seattle, SeaMar, Sound Mental Health (formerly Seattle Mental Health) and other facilities that belong to the King County Mental Health Providers Association. Specifically, the providers would agree to accept the union, rather than holding a vote, if a majority of their workers signed union authorization cards.
The problem, says Ann McGettigan, who chairs the association, is that some of the agencies already have unions -- Harborview, for instance, has the state employee's union, she says, and CPC's workers belong to another local of SEIU. Directors at other organizations say a neutrality agreement amounts to doing the union's job for it, in essence, by handing over employees.
"The management and board of directors of this organization is totally neutral on whether or not our employees vote to join a union. We've been clear with employees and everyone it's their right to do that," says David Stone, chief executive at Sound Mental Health.
"We've also been clear with everyone that we have no intention of forcing that kind of relationship on our employees," he says. "It's not our responsibility or within our authority to tell employees to join this or that." With the exception of Highline West Seattle, which made a counterproposal to SEIU, McGettigan says the provider group rejected a neutrality agreement months ago. But McGettigan and Stone say councilmembers have linked the union's demand and the tax increase, possibly out of concern for SEIU's political clout.
"By withholding public support for this tax, SEIU is basically holding hostage $48 million a year that could be used for much-needed services for people who can't access mental health care," McGettigan says.
Not so, says John Donaghy, political director for SEIU Local 1199. He says the neutrality agreement and the tax increase are separate issues. "We'd like to see [the providers] adopt neutrality regardless of whatever taxes or policies the County Council may decide on," he says.
"Our members lobbied hard [in the Legislature] to win new funding for mental health," he adds. "If more community mental health workers were in our union, we'd have that much stronger a voice in Olympia, which benefits the agencies as well as the clients."
But, "That's not always immediately obvious to an employer," McDonaghy says.
To break the log jam and get the tax increase passed this year (the county budget is typically finalized by Thanksgiving), council budget chair Bob Ferguson, who has pushed for the new treatment services and funding, held a meeting two weeks ago. In attendance were union representatives, McGettigan, and directors from three of the non-unionized agencies -- Valley Cities Counseling, Highline West Seattle and Sound Mental Health.
The two-hour meeting was cordial, participants say, and another has been planned at the end of October. But, says Ferguson, "Whether or not the labor issue is going to get worked out in the next couple of months is a question."