Mental health counselors in Illinois win voluntary recognition of their union

After initially resisting and using anti-union tactics like captive audience meetings, management at the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School (the “O School”) in Chicago has voluntarily recognized AFSCME Council 31 after employees filed for a union election.

The O School is a residential treatment center and therapeutic school for children and adolescents with challenges such as autism or emotional and behavioral disorders. Once their union is certified, mental health counselors at the O School will head to the bargaining table.

“The union will allow counselors and administration to work together to improve overall working conditions,” O School worker Loren Sargent said. “The union will improve staff conditions, which will ultimately improve student conditions as well.”

Another worker at the school, Will Bartz, agreed, saying, “Our knowledge about and devotion to the residential program, in tandem with the power our union provides, will help keep our residential program and our residents safe and thriving.”

One of the turning points was a petition created by Council 31 and amplified by AFSCME’s United We Heal campaign. The petition garnered hundreds of signatures and underscored the support the counselors have gathered across the country from the leading union for behavioral health workers.

“We are concerned for our students, our safety and the services we provide as we reopen during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” the organizing committee said in a statement. “We still have a long journey ahead as many serious issues at the O School remain unresolved, including recent layoffs, staffing and ongoing safety issues.”

O School worker Liv Seidel said the institution’s high turnover rates are a result of poor working conditions. “With our union, we can advocate for our children, be part of the decision-making and create a workplace that reflects our true value,” Seidel said.

“We residential employees are essential to the fabric of The Orthogenic School, yet we can’t rise to this challenge when our voices are dismissed and our workplace conditions leave us vulnerable and at risk,” said another worker, Dave O’Keeffe. “I welcome a new day when we residential employees stand together on even ground with management in meeting the challenges of the future.”