Union Power for Reproductive Justice: Rank and File Union Members Organize Campaign

by CJ White & Peggy Wang (APA, MTA/NEA – personal capacity)

This article was originally published in the September issue of Socialism Today! Subscribe here.

Three months ago, thousands of working people took to the streets to express their outrage at the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade. Since then, there has been little organized opposition to increasing attacks on reproductive rights, as the Democrats siphon much of the outrage around the repeal of Roe into their election campaigns.

Members of the Independent Socialist Group (ISG) wanted our unions to take visible and public action to defend reproductive rights. So we organized with members of our various unions and other unions in the greater Boston area for a standout on Labor Day in Copley Square in Boston, Massachusetts. Coming together as Union Power for Reproductive Justice, we represented voices from the MTA, IATSE, SBWU, AFSCME, SMART-TD, Teamsters, and other unions. In heavy rain, dozens of other workers, students, community members, and organizations also came out in support, picketing for almost two hours. 

We demanded the right to safe and accessible abortions, the closure of all fake abortion clinics, the defense and expansion of affordable reproductive care centers, and free and inclusive universal healthcare. We also called for paid family and sick leave, universal childcare, a living wage, affordable housing, quality free public transit, and higher education for all. And we demanded that our unions take action and mobilize members and resources for action in the workplaces and the streets to fight for our rights, such as organizing “freedom rides” for reproductive justice to states where abortion bans are now in effect or pending.

Speakers pointed out why unions need to help lead the struggle for reproductive rights. Starbucks is eliminating healthcare benefits for unionized workers and only offering abortion travel stipends to non-unionized stores. Beth Israel Lahey Health Corporation retaliated against midwives at the North Shore Birth Center, who unionized with the Massachusetts Nurses Association and just won their first contract. The corporation chose to close the maternal care center in September after midwives won a contract with safer staffing and better pay.

Corporations and the capitalist class have used access to reproductive care to union-bust and control workers. They will continue to do so unless unions take up the issue of reproductive rights. For example, in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby (and therefore other corporations) can block their employees’ access to birth control in employer-provided health insurance coverage. These attacks on abortion rights are aimed at working people.

The capitalist class will always have the resources to travel to states with legal protections for abortion or to pay under the table to have it done (safely) in their own states. Workers do not have this option.

Spontaneous protests are not enough. They can let off steam, but they don’t pose a sustained threat to the corporate political parties or the capitalist system. Instead, we need to build a continuous, organized movement to rally a critical mass of working people around reproductive justice. Unions have a massive amount of untapped power to help lead this fight – even more so when they stand united. They can stop the capitalist system in its tracks, cutting into the profits of the corporate class to demand not only reproductive rights but better living and working conditions for all.

Unions like the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Massachusetts Nurses Association (unions representing workers in historically female-dominated industries) have a direct interest in this issue. They should come together and organize standouts and rallies in Massachusetts, other “safe states,” and states with abortion bans. 

With both healthcare and education in crisis, unions in these sectors are already on the move, striking for better contracts and conditions for patients and students. However, union leaders have failed to take independent political action. Instead, they’ve directed energy and members’ dues toward electing Democrats, even as the Democratic party supports some anti-abortion candidates and judges. 

No state is “safe,” and no rights are guaranteed under capitalism. The strength of any labor movement hinges on its ability to challenge the capitalist class that profits from exploiting workers. Unions need to take action, including fighting on “social issues” and breaking from all corporate parties to help form a workers’ party. 

An independent workers’ party could fight for issues rank-and-file union members care about, like abortion rights, by running candidates accountable to the working class and using the workers’ party to help build real solidarity, coordinate protests and strikes, and help win contract struggles. We encourage union members to take the lead in getting their unions, workplaces, and communities to organize for reproductive rights. ISG will continue to fight for stronger, more militant unions and to help organize the fightback for reproductive justice, stand up to the capitalist class, and, ultimately, to build a workers’ party.

For more information on the Union Power for Reproductive Justice group and upcoming events, and to learn how you can involve your union in the campaign for reproductive rights, follow on Facebook at UnionPower4ReproductiveJustice (check for UP4RJ’s website coming soon).