During 2020, White Bird’s CAHOOTS program hit the mainstream as an alternative model to law enforcement. It saw countless stories in publications from People Magazine to the New York Times. It was featured on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. And Sen. Ron Wyden pushed for legislation that would fund CAHOOTS-like programs throughout the country.
But workers at CAHOOTS are unionizing, saying they can’t do their job effectively if they aren’t paid well and are forced to work long shifts.
Citing low wages, exhaustion and concern over benefits, CAHOOTS and HOOTS workers have begun the unionizing process, organizing with Teamsters Local 206. The workers say they’re hoping White Bird, given its social justice mission, will work with them during the process, and that a union can help retain and recruit workers.
On Wednesday, August 17, workers notified White Bird management that they are filing union paperwork with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board. As Eugene Weekly went to press, White Bird had not commented on the unionizing efforts.
“We feel strongly that we’re honoring that history in the movements that White Bird was born out of in the ’60s,” says CAHOOTS crisis worker Chelsea Swift. “We want White Bird Clinic to thrive. We want it to continue to be a place where different people and different ideas can show up and fit in. But we need to be able to pay rent to work there.”
CAHOOTS (an acronym for Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets) is a part of the larger White Bird Clinic and is a first responder for mental health-related emergency calls. It follows a de-escalation protocol when working with its clients and is dispatched through calls made to non-emergency police lines in Eugene and Springfield.
HOOTS (an acronym for Helping Out Our Teens in Schools) is also a part of White Bird. Similar to CAHOOTS, it sends teams consisting of a medic (a nurse or emergency medical technician) and a crisis worker to visit local schools to offer walk-in clinics.
The two programs are working together, Swift says, because they have a lot of shared labor conditions. “We operate with the same crisis worker-medic model in the field,” she says. “And because CAHOOTS operates out of a van, the Teamsters, traditionally a transportation union, are going to bring a lot of expertise.”
CAHOOTS has less staff right now than it did when Swift says she first joined the organization, and it has started affecting how many vans go out to serve the community. Until recently there was a culture of working 60 hours a week, she adds, but workers are cutting back on that for self-care, which is affecting service to the community.
“We’re severely understaffed and severely needed by not only our community members, but our community partners,” Swift says. Like other first responders, Swift says staff is working overtime and are experiencing burnout. And it’s affecting service to the community. “When I started on the team almost six years ago, we were never, ever taking vans out of service because of understaffing.”
The workers have realized that the first responder agencies that they aim to be the alternative of — law enforcement, for example — are more sustainable places to work at because of union contracts, she adds.
Alese Colehour, a crisis worker, says workers have also felt the effects of the economic crisis. Base wage for workers is about $18 an hour, and they haven’t seen a raise in four years. “Everyone’s feeling the effects of wage stagnation while everything gets more expensive and rents rise,” Colehour says. “We all know that we need to do this for our wellbeing.”
Colehour adds that one of the goals of having a union is to have a contract that would stabilize its staff so employees don’t leave for graduate school, nursing school and other jobs.
Swift says that CAHOOTS and HOOTS workers undergo an intensive training process, so much that if someone leaves after two years, it can be a loss in training. These programs, she adds, work better when workers have familiarity with responding firefighters and police officers on the scene.
“The outcomes and the trust we have really saves lives and allows them to trust us to go and talk to someone who’s escalated and possibly armed with a knife,” she adds. “If these were sustainable jobs and we were growing and working alongside of the people who get to call these careers as first responders, that impact for the people we serve would be immeasurable.”
In early 2021, CAHOOTS workers considered unionizing, but didn’t have everyone on board, Swift says. This year, though, 100 percent of its staff have signed a petition to unionize.
Swift says that what was different this time was that the staff followed White Bird’s collective consensus decision making model to get everyone on board to begin the unionizing process. “All of our team members had the opportunity to engage and didn’t feel like we were hiding anything from them,” she adds. “Instead, it was a sincere effort to learn what our co-workers were struggling with and take that information back to the Teamsters.”
Swift says CAHOOTS-like program Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) Program in California is operated by the fire department and workers are represented by its union.
The next step is a union election, and then White Bird, CAHOOTS and HOOTS would begin contract bargaining.
In addition to wages that would attract and retain workers, CAHOOTS and HOOTS workers mention a need for a retirement program and health insurance that also covers dependents. Workers also say there are no systems in place to limit workers working overtime or incentives for others to cover a shift.
Cory Finnegan of the local Teamsters chapter says that depending on how bargaining goes, one option is that the union provides health insurance and pension programs for workers that management pays into.
Working at a nonprofit often means receiving lower wages, but Swift says she hopes that White Bird will pursue voluntary recognition of the union, and that it will inspire other workers at White Bird and other nonprofit organizations to consider unionizing.
“The nature of the design of our jobs was to be nonunion, non high-paying jobs,” she says. “Mission driven work does not actually help us to fulfill our mission. I think any social service health care provider is feeling that right now.”
This article has been updated. The Portland Street Response is not represented by a union.