Raising Hell in the Social Services Domain

Solidarity alliance of social workers sounds like a modern Wobbly Kind of Thing

Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.

— Sal Alinksy, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, 1971, Random House

Let’s make it clear – before Trump, things were really bad. For the homeless, the precarious workers (like, 70 percent of us), for minorities, Muslims, countries on the kill list or Colin Powell’s WMD list; for students, for the planet, for rivers, air, the native Americans fighting against privatization and Monsanto, for the peace makers, for the teachers, for the scientists, for the intellectuals, for the LQBTQ advocates, for non-profits looking to help real people, on real issues; for the Developing World, AKA Third World, for Mexico, for all those countries both parties bombed, for migrants, for health care, for the American Dream, for, well, you get it.

LAD is not Life After Donald. AD stands for Assisted Death of our institutions, of our safety nets, our libraries, our infrastructure; of our legal institutions, our schools, our public commons; of our public discourse, our collective smarts, our pocket books, our brothers and sisters abroad.

Ahh, but at least people are now coming out protesting the Draconian and racist acts of this incoming small fry who is POTUS. At least now after eight years letting the Bomber and Deporter and Surveillance Lover and Wall Street Cheerleader in CHIEF get away with bloody murder. This doesn’t absolve my friends, lovers, co-workers, students, colleagues, activists, journalists, semi-left, quasi-radicals from giving this cardboard charmer Barak Obama a bye. Or Green Light, or EIGHT-year honeymoon. There are some wounds that will never heal.

Social Workers, hmm, Unite!

Portland State University. A union-loving, union-abiding institution, in the heart of downtown Portland. This Saturday, the Solidarity Alliance of Social Services and AFSCME Oregon (one million countrywide in the union) and more than one hundred people – mostly mental health workers and also students in graduate programs – came to talk about organizing. This is about expanding services and raising standards in the changing political climate. The theme is about supporting our clients, our communities, ourselves.

These are people with masters degrees in social work, with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt each, getting 15 to 18 dollars an hour to serve highly needy/deserving/distressed people with mental health challenges. This is the state of America, pre-LAD, when the slide into precarity was brought to us by the Bushes and then the bailout king: Too Big To Fail Criminals Obama who helped up by their bootstraps the millionaires and billionaires, those poor souls that needed all the protecting. Part-time and deadening and dead end jobs, the legacy of Obama and the legacy of 40 years of neoliberalism and Friedman economics. Again, Pre-LAD.

The issues are large with this group of people, SASS, a solidarity and alliance of social services workers, with a bent –militant, against the status quo, tired of business as usual, questioning non-profits run by HR and ADMIN departments whose job is to exact more work, less pay, more compliance, less bottom up distributive justice, more numbers and data, less humanity . . . . The talk was also about unionizing, and the demands around the fact that our working conditions directly parlay to the conditions our clients live under. The same pledge I was pummeling the ADMIN class and Dean-lets with around part-time faculty – 75 percent of us are untenured, part-time, contract to contract, running from multiple campuses, under the screws of multiple overpaid administrators.

Maybe we shall see a stronger union drive, encompassing an entire Metropolitan area, covering all workers in a tri-county place like Portland-PDX, so every agency, every department holding us, social services workers, under the gun will then have our brothers and sisters from ALL agencies as one big bargaining unit. City-wide organizing, like we have in DC and Boston – all adjuncts reaping the small crumbs of the multiple institutions falling under the umbrella of one giant bargaining unit.

The Saturday conference was not so much anti-Trump but pro-expanded access to Health Insurance. This is the platform:

More Resources for Behavioral Health Agencies – 40 percent increase since 2010 to 2015 in annual revenue for the six largest agencies (including the one I work for) will be on the chopping board.

Problems with the Community Behavioral Health System:

a. low wages and poor benefits
b. high caseloads and poor access to services for clients
c. workers experiencing significant problems of burnout
d. the community behavioral health system allocates resources poorly (prioritizing secure institutional settings)
e. the lack of direct service workers having any voice in policy decisions

Speaking out, offering changes, making the work about emphasizing the client and the well being of worker and client can get us in trouble. Unfortunately, Portland State University has a robust social work program, reaping tens of thousands of dollars from each student, and in the end, that student will be faced with his or her own crossroads once he or she gets into the profession: was all that erudite and creative and social justice-influenced instruction worth the end result? That end result is poverty wages in a city overvalued, over-wrought with story after story of creative, hard working people not able to afford 50 hours a week pay to live. So, we have people working three jobs. To put a leaky roof over her head and a shitty commute to work before him.

The goal is improving client care, because in the end, that’s what we are too, people going into the profession because we ourselves have faced trauma, PTSD, drug use, homelessness, mental health challenges, and the like. The idea is we are all peers, and the work we do is to triage the broken system and fabric of American democracy (sic), one where conspicuous consumption and consumerism is on display 24/7, and where that shitty hierarchy and class warfare have created a massive battlefield of mental health carnage. People now, under the thumb of this out-and-out fascist billionaire boy-bully, are railing, are in a system of righteous indignation, are willing to launch something new in a world where they – us all – have been told to “keep your head down and shut up and be grateful you have an effing job… because you might turn out on the streets like your clients, buddy boy, buddy girl.”

The irony is we are workers for the people, working in communities of every stripe, fighting injustice, barriers, outright racism-sexism-structural violence, yet our supervisors and honchos higher up are in this for the grants, for the poverty pimping, using our massive collective IQ, and massive personal experiences, to advance the over bloat at the top. We have people serving people on the streets one paycheck away from serving them from the streets, as peers victimized by this out of balance system of managerial class folk, the paper pushers and data collectors running roughshod over our own profession, values and learned sense.

Taking this to the streets seems to be one action, one arrow in our quiver. Hitting those over-bloat politicians is another. Striking our own agencies is the third prong in the battle. But there have to be more, and more and more people coming together in solidarity, as one, willing to give up bedrooms and share pots of soup, willing to sacrifice.

I have friends who are strategizing ways to hide their friends, their clients, those who are undocumented. There are conversations around finally doing the work of sanctuary movements, by protecting us all through major acts of disruptive actions, both covert and overt, both socially and digitally. It’s time to hack the system and demand more and more each day.

My work is all about change, about recovery, and the stories are amazing, the individuals shining examples of courage and resiliency. We have none of that in the managerial class, or in the class of people featured throughout the documentary, The Inside Job. The pathology in these economists and hedge funders and financial thieves is akin to a sociopath. These people are in it for themselves, for that reptilian seed of their brain, for instant gratification, for the art of war, for the margins, for the foreclosures, for betting on people failing, dying.

Those are the folks – and their politicians and the CEOs in many companies – we have always been up against as social justice proponents, social workers, teachers, students, and some government workers.

This moment in history will show us if we can stand up to fear and never fold our hands. We have diverse actors, students, looking at the intersectionalities of labor and justice, mental health and poverty, and everything else imaginable that ties into our beautiful fabric of diversity that is the globe. Easy targets of the deplorables who voted for Trump because they want blacks and gays and radicals and teachers and social justice proponents and climate activists and us all working for change in the back of the bus. The bus they want pushed over the cliff with all of us in it.

That is Trump, really, and don’t ever think otherwise. He is that man, and the people who support him by and large are that man’s servants. A country where deplorables laugh at drone killings, laugh at migrants locked up, laugh at cops murdering youth and older people of color, laugh at the unemployment of teachers, artists, social workers, laugh at the sick right-wing stupidity of consumerism mixed with Christianity, and they pray to the god of money.

It’s clear that very few of the people I was with this past Saturday in Portland, Oregon, had any buy into the killings and mass surveillance and deep structural violence of an Obama or Clinton. No nods to their mass incarceration formula or the algorithms of who is poor and who is rich. They are just now whip-lashed by the conditions that created a country run by a Hulk Hogan wannabe, this perversion of adulthood called Trump. They have been always fighting for collective solidarity, but now we have to fight like fighters, hard, with fists, with no holds barred, and this will be a challenge in a country where consensus building and controlled opposition have overtaken common sense of striking and blockade and out-and-out street fighting.

Paul Kirk Haeder has been a journalist since 1977. He's covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/community journalism situations in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's been a part-time faculty since 1983, and as such has worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, as a private contractor-writing instructor for US military in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Washington. A forthcoming book (Dec. 15, 2016), Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber, looks at 10 years of his writing at Dissident Voice, and before, to bring defiance to the world that is now lobotomizing at a rate never before seen in history. Read his autobiography, weekly chapter installments, at LA Progressive. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.