The Battle for Humane Working Conditions at Pelican Bay Continues


Supporting the work taken up by SEIU Local 1000 members to address issues in their workplaces is a fundamental component of the role of the union. Nowhere is this mandate clearer than at Pelican Bay State Prison. Pelican Bay, or PBSP, was built in Crescent City in 1989 and is the one of the few supermax facilities in the state. A year ago, the facility has been at 109% capacity, housing high-priority prisoners from across the state. Since then, the COVID pandemic exacerbated the existing problems that management allowed to come to define PBSP.

A series of failures to respond to changing conditions turned the hotbed of fear and intimidation that characterized management at the prison into an unsafe, unhealthy workplace, with open hostility directed towards the medical staff represented by SEIU Local 1000. This has been a long year for the organizers, but as time has gone on, efforts to protect nurses and ensure the safety of all workers at the facility have only intensified. 

Laura Slavec, one of the member leaders of the Organizing Committee (OC) at PBSP, has been in full swing since last year, adding new nurses as leaders to the OC and developing the ability of workers to fill the gap in leadership and support left by management. “The nurses have really started to lean on one another,” she said. “For example, when an issue arises instead of coming to me first, they are reaching out to another OC nurse before they circle back to me.” 

Developing leadership is hard but especially when a culture of fear and harassment has trained many members to keep their heads down to avoid retaliation. This new leadership, led by the nurses, has had concrete changes to the workplace so far. “They have rallied around nurses that are being harassed by management and bullied,” she said, “A year ago this would not have happened; the other nurses that weren’t affected would have stayed to themselves.  The empowerment these nurses feel through all the actions we have done is priceless, and I am in awe of them all.”

Fighting against an abusive culture is a complex issue, since harassment takes many forms, making it easy to mingle managing with retaliation. Part of Slavec’s work is disentangling these and forcing management to be honest with the workers they manage. “Members that have received frivolous Letters of Instruction (LOI) for not providing a doctor’s note, to getting an LOI for not being allowed to take their COVID test during work hours,” she said. The scale of this issue has only increased as management’s failure to lead during the COVID-19 pandemic created more confusion. “Members that have FMLA are being questioned when they exercise their right under the protected leave. Theresa Witherspoon, another leader in the OC, sent out a Cease and Desist last Friday and management continues to question our members.”

Pressuring members to not take FMLA, which is intended in part to ensure a healthy workforce, is only part of management’s apparent hostility towards workplace safety. This last year has seen a huge increase in hostility towards workers, which the nurses have not taken lying down. “We currently have 25 Grievances filed the majority submitted within the year,” she said. “This shows you the unwillingness of management to work with staff and the Union.” By remaining closed off and refusing to engage with nurses, management has made it clear where their priorities are. Even as the prison is run at over 100% capacity, the number of nurses available steadily fell throughout the COVID pandemic, as the vacancy rate, typically hovering between 15 and 20 percent, rose to 30 percent while the statewide average remained unchanged. Understaffed nurses are encouraged by management to neglect their own health while management creates conditions which put them at risk. 

After such a long organizing campaign, the nurses remain motivated to keep fighting. “We all believe 100% that PBSP could be a great place to work at if there was any type of leadership at all,” said Slavec. “Unfortunately, not much will change as long as you have managers that don’t value their workers, that are unwilling to take action for the sake of their staff.” This fight for a safe workplace has continued for a year, and the nurses will not stop until real change comes to PBSP. “Our next steps include taking this outside the prison, including speaking with elected officials on the City Council and Board of Supervisors.” said Slavec. “This mistreatment of State Workers needs to stop.”