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SEIU Local 535 Dragon--Voice of  the Union-- American Federation of Nurses & Social Services Unioin  

Eight Years of the Dragon
Farewell by Richard Bermack

I began producing the Dragon in 1995 along with Ed Herzog. Last year Ed started working full-time as a video producer and decided he no longer had time to work on the Dragon. It is now time that I must move on as well. Producing the Dragon has been one of the most satisfying and rewarding experiences in my career, so I thought I would take the time to look back at these last eight years, thank everyone that I worked with and wrote about, and share what I think were the best stories and most notable union accomplishments.

Nursing and Health Care: “Nursing, an Endangered Species.” The profit motive and managed care had just been let loose to run wild when we started the Dragon. Patients were being “fast tracked” to get them out of the hospital as soon as possible. Nurse-to-patient staffing levels were being cut to unsafe levels, and hospitals were threatening to close their inpatient services. Nurses at the Kaiser Sunset Hospital in Los Angeles sounded the alarm that their patients’ lives were in jeopardy. The union fought back. Working with consumer groups, they helped pass legislation by Liz Figueroa to stop “drive through births” by guaranteeing that after giving birth, a new mother would have at least 48 hours to recover. The bill was one of the first consumer assaults on managed care.

Local 535 nurses began working with the SEIU Nurse Alliance and succeeded in getting the California Department of Health Services to pass regulations guaranteeing safe staffing levels. The Nurse Alliance was also able to secure passage of legislation to force hospitals to use needles that protect heath care professionals from accidentally getting stuck by contaminated needles. The partnership between labor and the Kaiser health care plan led to further staffing improvements and the decision by Kaiser not to close Sunset and other hospitals. Nurses at Red Cross also fought to protect phlebotomists.

Children’s Services: Workloads and caseloads have always plagued social services workers, but the introduction of the Child Welfare Services/Case Management System pushed children’s services workloads over the top. Many workers and managers wished they could just dump the defective system. Local 535 members not only voiced their objections, but then rolled up their sleeves to work with the department to salvage the fiasco.

A series of articles in the Dragon, including “State of Emergency” and the “Social Worker Meltdown Series,” publicized the impossible workload of children’s services workers. The Local 535 Children’s Services Committee combined efforts with the SEIU State Council and the California County Welfare Directors Association to publish Protecting Children, Restoring Families, It Takes Time. The effort led to passage of Senate Bill 2030 funding a workload study that established a new caseload yardstick for children’s services. Eventually the workers got IBM, the CWS/CMS manufacturer, to lobby Governor Wilson for caseload reduction. The union was invited to become part of the Child Welfare Services Stakeholders group charged with redesigning the child welfare system in California.

The social worker awareness campaign kicked into high gear with the Heroes of Social Work: Making a Difference for Children and Families exhibit, which brought together SEIU, the National Association of Social Workers, Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, County Welfare Directors Association, the University of California Berkeley School of Social Welfare, the Children’s Advocacy Institute, and even the state Department of Social Services. The exhibit was launched by First Lady Sharon Davis. The union secured passage of Assembly Bill 364, which committed the legislature to caseload reduction. Change was beginning to happen, and then the budget crisis hit. Although the campaign was unable to increase staffing to the levels recommended in the SB 2030 study because of the budget shortfall, it did succeed in putting caseload reform on the agenda. When the campaign began, social workers were often blamed for the failings of the system. Now social service administrators, social service reformers, children’s advocates and reporters largely acknowledge that child welfare workers are overworked to the point that they cannot provide optimum services, and that is why children and parents fall through the cracks.

Welfare Reform or Deception: Welfare eligibility workers understood the need for welfare reform. They know what it takes to get people working. Programs like Greater Avenues to Independence have demonstrated the potential to help people overcome their blocks to employment. Welfare reform promised a more integrated team approach to helping recipients go from welfare to work. Although skeptical, workers threw themselves into the new teamwork approach. Workers in Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties were involved in pilot projects that they believed could make a difference. A year later they felt “Seduced and Abandoned.” The Dragon story revealed the “reforms” to be no more than window dressing. “Can CalWIN” and “Living on the Bleeding Edge of Technology Without Getting Too Badly Cut,” a review of the union’s Eligibility and Employment Services Committee’s retreat on welfare reform, critiqued the different computer systems that are being implemented to help eligibility workers manage their cases and prepare counties to deal with the pitfalls of the systems.

Fighting Privatization: One of the key assaults on social services has been privatization, the entry of profit-making companies attempting to take over social services. In Santa Barbara County, Dean Curtis used its expertise in wining and dining county officials to take over employment training services. The company used the revolving door technique of hiring ex-county administrators and played fast and loose with numbers to convince the board of supervisors the company could do a better job than the county workers. But a dedicated team of GAIN social workers in Lompoc took them on, as described in “Unmasking Dean Curtis.” As a result, Dean Curtis blamed SEIU for preventing them from taking over job training services in California. An audit by the County of Santa Barbara a year later vindicated the workers and exposed Dean Curtis’s creative accounting practices.

Politics: SEIU members made so many trips to Sacramento that legislators began to wonder if the state had changed its official color to purple. As reported in the second issue of the Dragon, Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services was nearly bankrupt and about to lay off 1,700 workers, including 250 Local 535 members. The fiscal disaster was due in part to cutbacks in state funding. Intense lobbying by SEIU members resulted in passage of a bill that saved the jobs of Local 535 and Local 660 members so they could continue to provide services to the 76,000 elderly and disabled persons the program helps.

At the time, adult services workers had little more to offer consumers than “A Lick and a Promise.” A concerted legislative effort by the SEIU State Council led to a bill to provide funding to create a full- fledged adult protective services program with an abuse hotline similar to that of children’s protective services. The program has not yet reached it’s potential, but SEIU members have been working with management to make it happen.

Local 535 has also been in the forefront of improving the conditions of workers at regional centers and workers who help people with developmental disabilities and mental illness.

Organizing: When the Dragon began in 1995, the union had fewer than 15,000 members. Then came a series of organizing victories, mergers, and acquisitions in Fresno County. This was followed by organizing victories in Madera and Tulare. Local 535 even began representing substitute teachers, taking in the Fresno Area Substitute Teachers Association. Local 535 became a force to be reckoned with in the Central Valley, representing everyone from public defenders in Fresno to trail guides in Yosemite.

San Diego used to have a reputation as one of the most conservative parts of the state, an anti-labor town with open shops. The union demonstrated that politics is union business, helping to elect a liberal majority to the city council and board of supervisors. They were able to change the climate. They won agency shop for county workers and became one of the more vibrant chapters in the state.

Local 535 now represents over 28,000 members throughout California.