Labor Must Take Up the Fight for Abortion Rights

In the labor movement, we are only as strong as the weakest among us. Revoking the right to abortion undercuts much of the workforce’s bargaining power — which means reproductive freedom is a cause the entire labor movement must champion.

Abortion rights protesters demonstrate in Palo Alto, California, in May 2022. (Suiren2022 / Wikimedia Commons)

In the aftermath of Roe v. Wade’s fall, everyone is looking for answers about how to fight back. But too few people are proposing that the answer, or part of it, might be found in the labor movement. It would be wrong to overlook the labor movement’s utility in this fight, or the power of a political movement linking workers’ rights with reproductive freedom. The fight for legal, free abortion on demand would be stronger if it broke out of the weak politics of individual “choice” and “privacy” toward a unionist and democratic vision of reproductive freedom.

There is a direct relationship between abortion rights and workers’ rights. Outlawing abortion severely impacts the economic freedom of women: if a person can’t choose whether, when, and under what conditions they become pregnant, they lose control over their economic and working fate.

Even with the right to abortion in place, pregnant workers face an uphill battle. Pregnancy and its aftermath are a physically grueling process that temporarily or permanently impedes someone’s ability to fully participate in the workforce. At the federal level, the United States does not guarantee any paid parental leave. Federal law guarantees new parents only six weeks of unpaid time off, and not all workers qualify. Absent a union contract, most employers only offer the minimum unpaid leave required by federal law — and most workers can’t afford that many missed paychecks.

When they do take this pitifully minimal time off, employers still find ways to punish mothers and damage their careers. The reality of pregnancy discrimination means that pregnant people are exposed to harassment from management on the shop floor. Meanwhile, complications and long-term disabilities resulting from pregnancy can impact someone’s ability to physically do their job at all.

And all this is aside from the financial costs of pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing, which are, simply put, life-changing — even in those social democratic countries that provide far more support for parents than the United States. Many workers never recover economically from these years of lost earnings and increased living costs.

Women have the right to decide whether and when to take these risks and manage the burdens that pregnancy and child-rearing have on their working life and financial future. Taking away that decision is a violation of their rights as workers. In the labor movement, we are only as strong as our weakest members. When women have less bargaining power — when they are forced into positions where they must take whatever employers offer them — it impacts the bargaining power of all workers.

The purpose of the union movement is to increase the worker’s power over the conditions they work in, the hours they work, and their relationship to their employer. Forced pregnancy, on the other hand, increases the employer’s power over women workers. Solidarity demands that we in labor stand against the outlawing and criminalization of abortion.

Bargaining for the Common Good

The most concrete way that many union members are seeking to protect abortion rights is by bargaining provisions in their contracts that support access to reproductive care. Proposals include health insurance that covers the cost of abortions; sick leave policies that are flexible and generous enough to allow people to travel last minute for out-of-state abortions; and financial assistance for members who must make those trips. These provisions are mutually reinforcing, and it’s vital for unions to bargain for all of them.

“It’s not meaningful for a health plan to say . . . ‘I will pay your doctor’ to get a procedure your doctor is prohibited from giving you in your state,” says Writers Guild of America, East executive director Lowell Peterson. “That’s why the travel piece is important.” Similarly, providing a travel stipend without time off is useless to most workers.

It’s also important to craft language ensuring that people who get an abortion aren’t disciplined or harassed at work for it. “So if they’re talking to colleagues and a manager overhears that they’re talking about abortion, then they wouldn’t be disciplined for that,” explains NewsGuild-CWA president Jon Schleuss. The NewsGuild has been a leader on this issue, and has pledged to share draft bargaining language that protects abortion rights with other unions to help them take up the same fight.

Some states are seeking to issue criminal penalties for traveling out of state to get an abortion, which is a clear incursion on employees’ privacy. Unions should bargain for greater privacy protections to defend people from managers who might report them to authorities — and find the courage to enforce them.

Meanwhile, unions have to be ready for companies to use this issue to divide workers. Starbucks recently announced a new policy offering travel assistance for employees seeking abortions. But in an obvious attempt to deflate the union effort sweeping the company, they made a point to stress they “cannot guarantee” the benefit will be available at unionized stores.

Starbucks workers also pointed out that the benefit is only available to workers on Starbucks’ health plan, excluding the many young Starbucks employees who are still on their parents’ insurance. Companies will always pat themselves on the back for their progressive policies, but only organizing can win those policies for everyone while ensuring they can’t be taken away or restricted according to the company’s whims.

Some unions, like the United Federation of Teachers, have legal defense plans that offer free or low-cost legal services to members. The American Federation of Teachers, for example, established a legal defense fund last year to defend educators sued or fired for allegedly teaching “critical race theory.” Journalists’ unions and associations have historically established similar funds for defending members targeted in the courts for their reporting. Such legal funds could also be established to defend members in states that seek to sue or prosecute people who obtain or help someone obtain an abortion. Unions that have preexisting legal defense funds should put them to work defending the reproductive rights of their members. Unions that don’t have them should consider starting them.

Finally, both the labor movement and the reproductive rights movement should stand in solidarity with clinic workers seeking to unionize. Clinic workers are often badly paid, work long hours, and are told to put up and shut up for the sake of the mission. The wave of clinic closures post-Roe and the attendant explosion of need means that workers in blue states will be more overwhelmed on a day-to-day basis. And now they face a heightened threat of political violence.

These workers are facing extreme conditions in a health care sector already mired in a staffing crisis. These conditions will push workers out of the profession. Policy efforts to secure abortion access won’t matter if there aren’t enough clinic workers to serve patients safely. We must support these workers’ right to organize and oppose clinic employers, including Planned Parenthood, when they bust clinic unions.

It’s Not All Bargaining

But making the labor movement a force for championing abortion rights is not just a matter of writing good contract language. It’s also an organizing challenge. Contract provisions won’t materialize or be enforced unless rank-and-file members can successfully move their coworkers and their union leadership to support them.

The first step is providing resources, training, and support to union members who want to have organizing conversations with their coworkers about abortion rights. Materials explaining why abortion rights are important for workers’ rights should be available. Those unions and labor education organizations who are already ahead on this should fund traveling workshops and organizing trainings — similar to Labor Notes’ Troublemakers Schools — that workers can attend and invite their coworkers to. These workshops should center rank-and-file workers who have won on reproductive rights issues in their workplaces and can explain step-by-step how other workers can do the same.

Some workplaces are just not going to be ready for the abortion conversation. In those workplaces, there are still a range of women’s and reproductive rights issues that union activists can organize around. These issues can help a member test how receptive their coworkers are to reproductive rights and shift their thinking about them.

Two examples are pregnancy discrimination and accommodations for breastfeeding mothers.

The most blatant forms of pregnancy discrimination look like employers firing workers, or forcing them onto unpaid leave, as soon as they find out they’re pregnant. At-will and hourly workers suddenly find their hours cut. Many employers refuse simple accommodations like bathroom breaks or restrictions on lifting heavy boxes, putting mother and baby at risk. And as Joeli Brearley, author and founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, says,

There’s really severe bullying and harassment that is often done behind closed doors. . . . It’s not documented so that you can’t prove anything in court but there’s a direct drip-feed effect of really nasty comments that make you feel completely worthless. We’ve had really hideous stories of bullying being so ruthless and so horrendous that women have gone into labor prematurely and ended up with very sick babies as a result.

Pregnancy discrimination law in the United States is governed by the 2015 Supreme Court case Young v. UPS. UPS driver Peggy Young was forced onto unpaid leave when she needed a modest lifting restriction while pregnant. She sued UPS, and her case won additional protections for pregnant workers. But there is enough ambiguity in the court’s ruling that many employers still get away with blatant discrimination. Following Young v. UPS, two-thirds of pregnant workers still lose their discrimination cases and have difficulty confronting the verbal harassment Brearley describes.

Workers who are breastfeeding face similar treatment. There are big holes in national law requiring employers to provide breaks and suitable facilities for nursing parents to express and store breast milk, meaning around 12 million workers of childbearing age aren’t covered. Existing law also fails to clarify that any time spent pumping on the job must be paid, or that nursing parents can access remedies like back pay and reinstatement if employers don’t provide required accommodations. Nursing workers often find themselves shoved into closets or dirty bathrooms. They’re frequently forced to switch to formula because of the impossibility of expressing milk at work. With legal standards this weak, only shop-floor organizing can truly establish and defend the rights of pregnant and nursing workers.

These issues are visible on the shop floor, and organizing around them provides opportunities for conversations about reproductive rights. Making progress on these fights can also build the confidence that women rank and filers need to tackle the more challenging issue of abortion rights. Winning on these issues isn’t a distraction from abortion rights. They are one and the same fight: a fight over whether employers and the state get to bully women and control their bodies.

As with everything in the labor movement, organizers should act with urgency but be prepared for the long haul. The dominant pro-choice movements and organizations have mostly ignored unions and their members for the last few decades. Attempts to build a politics uniting reproductive rights and labor have been few and far between. When we don’t see immediate results, our reaction shouldn’t be to wipe our hands of labor. For people who can get pregnant, reproductive laws determine our fate as workers. The labor movement belongs to us, and we should be prepared to come back tomorrow — and the next day, and the day after that — for as long as it takes to win our rights.