After Long Labor, an Integral Care Union Is Born

County’s largest mental health provider comes to terms with workers

The largest mental health provider in Travis County has finally unionized (Photo by Austin Sanders)

After a yearlong campaign, the United Workers of Integral Care succeeded in their effort to unionize Integral Care, the largest mental health care provider in Travis County. Integral Care's Board of Trustees at its May 26 meeting unanimously adopted a consultation policy that outlines the union's structure and how it will engage with management at the public-sector "local mental health authority." Both sides will select a neutral third party to verify that UWIC has collected signed pledges to join the union from at least 5% of non­-management employees, a threshold organizers say they will clear easily.

The quick vote provided an anticlimactic ending to a union drive that, as the Chronicle has reported, has not been smooth and seamless. Integral Care CEO David Evans and other executives resisted employees' efforts to organize, then attempted (in organizers' view) to co-opt the emerging UWIC with a management-appointed Employee Advisory Council, then made sweeping unilateral changes to the draft consultation policy that UWIC rejected. But a final round of talks involving Evans, Board Chair Hal Katz, UWIC organizers, and their sponsors at Communications Workers of America District 6 led to an outcome everyone could support. "The [consultation] policy supports Integral Care's efforts to keep communication lines open," Evans said in a statement following board authorization of the union. "We're committed to creating an environment where all employees have a voice."

The nascent union has already cited its success in persuading the board, back in December, to increase IC's starting wage from $15 to $20 per hour for certain positions and job classes where turnover was rampant. Initially, IC managers wanted to do an eight-month compensation study before considering any raises, but instead opted for the targeted wage increase while deciding how to best provide cost-of-living adjustments to the entire IC workforce. On May 26, trustees also approved $2.3 million for a 5% pay increase for the rest of IC's personnel. "I am grateful to our board for their investment in and support of our staff," Evans said of the compensation increases. "I am grateful to our team for the quality care they provide adults and children in our community every day."

Jenn Kolb, a "licensed practitioner of the healing arts" (one of those high-turnover job classes) who was one of the earliest UWIC supporters and a key organizer of the union drive, said the vote last night felt surreal. "We've been organizing our co-workers during a pandemic, while people are working remotely, texting each other, and it's been a slow but steady process," Kolb recounted, standing outside Integral Care's boardroom. "It's just amazing to have hit this milestone, even if we know it's not the end of the race."

Kolb thinks UWIC has commitments from about twice as many people as it needs to be certified, and she expects more to join now that employees need not fear retaliation for doing so. The next step for UWIC will be to make sure members understand what the union can and can't do, and how it can best be leveraged to improve the working conditions of all employees at the agency. "Now we can start to build the house," Kolb said. "We got the permit to build and now we've got to lay the foundation [and] have people who've joined learn how to be in a union, because we live in Texas and most employees don't have experience with unions."

Because of the kind of work Integral Care does, Kolb thinks a healthy and active union will be essential for the agency's continued success; it will provide a way for employees on the front lines of behavioral health to share what they know with the trustees who set agency policy. "We have something like 400 to 500 people at this organization who are all smart, solid people who care about their clients and care about the work that we do," Kolb said.

So, what's next for UWIC? "Honestly, it feels like the sky's the limit," Kolb told us. "Now that we're organized, we finally have some real power at the agency."

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