Abortion Workers, Crushed by Restrictions and Buoyed by Labor Movement, Are Unionizing

At least eight reproductive health-care groups have organized since the Supreme Court overturned Roe

(Bloomberg) — Burned out abortion-care providers are joining the avalanche of labor activity that has swept the US this year, with clinics from California to Maryland voting to unionize after the end of Roe v. Wade heaped demand on their services.

At least eight reproductive health-care groups have organized since the Supreme Court overturned Roe last summer, according to a review of National Labor Relations Board data, including at least four Planned Parenthood affiliates. Just last month, Partners in Abortion Care, an independent clinic in Maryland, said it had voluntarily recognized its staff’s decision to unionize. In September, nearly 300 employees at a California Planned Parenthood affiliate —one of the largest in the country — voted to unionize. 

“Everything happened at the same time — with the additional work load and the movement of seeing how people were organizing and progressing,” said Brittany Conner, who works in human resources at the National Network of Abortion Funds and is a union member. “We just really believed that all workers deserve the protection of a union.”

The organizing comes amid a broader emboldened labor movement in the US this year. Unionized actors and writers in Hollywood both went on strike for the first time in six decades. Striking auto workers are demanding better compensation and are pushing to get back their retirement pensions. And United Parcel Service Inc. has become a hot employer since its union this summer secured $30 billion in new money over a five-year contract.

“The last three years or so, there’s been a general increase in organizing among unions or workers,” said Kevin Reuning, an assistant professor of political science at Miami University who tracks union activity. “Some of this is bouncing back. But it’s also due to the very tight labor market right now combined with growing economic inequality.”

It’s hard to know exactly how many reproductive health-care workers are affected, but there are indicators that organizing is picking up steam as restrictions proliferate. Of the dozen Planned Parenthood affiliates that have unionized in total, a third voted to do so since Roe fell. These serve patients in Washington, Massachusetts, Minnesota and California, all of which have seen an influx of patients traveling from states with restrictions. 

There’s also been a broader uptick in health-care workers organizing. Just this month, more than 75,000 Kaiser Permanente workers went on strike. Since June 2022, health-care worker unions in 21 out of 25 states where abortion is accessible have filed at least 269 notices to seek new contracts with their employers, according to data from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services, which mediates labor-management disputes. In the 15 months prior to the SCOTUS decision, health workers in those 25 states filed 99 notices for new contracts.

Workers at Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest are seeking higher wages, especially for entry-level staff that have high levels of turnover. The group also wants staffing shortages addressed, according to Mia Neustein, a clinician and nurse practitioner in the group. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Planned Parenthood affiliate said it has coverage measures in place to prevent staffing shortages and is committed to competitive pay.

“Health care has been stressed for a long time,” Neustein said. “I think Covid added another layer of stress and difficulties, and especially working in abortion care and reproductive and sexual health care there are unique stressors as well.”

Employees at the affiliate have faced an increase in patients from other states traveling for care, compounding longstanding issues. The number of abortions provided in California in the first half of 2023 was up 17% compared to the same period in 2020, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research and advocacy group.

While the overturning of Roe v. Wade made an impact, providers in the state were already seeing a surge in out-of-state patients as legislation like SB8, which banned terminations after six weeks in Texas in 2021, went into effect. “When we have more of a strain on abortion, it does affect the other services that we can provide because I’m only one person and I can only see so many patients in a day,” Neustein said. 

Workers at Guttmacher — which published the research on increased volumes — voted to unionize last year and have been bargaining their first contract since September. They’re hoping to improve wages and  benefits like parental leave. In an email statement, a Guttmacher spokesperson said the organization had reached consensus on many issues and is optimistic that a favorable contract will be reached.

“It is really exhausting to be engaged in both the fight for a fair first contract and the fight for reproductive rights,” said Madeleine Haas, a senior research assistant at Guttmacher, and part of the bargaining unit.

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