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Organizing in a post-Roe world

Reproductive rights workers outline fears


Workers in the reproductive rights field doubled down on their organizing efforts when it became clear in early May the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade and severely cut down on access to legal abortions in certain parts of the country. 

With the court’s ruling Friday, those endeavors gained increased focus, importance and significance, for the workers certainly, but also for those they care for. 

In an interview before the court’s ruling was released, Crystal Grabowski, an abortion worker at a clinic associated with Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, said that her biggest fear is “people dying.”

“I’m a healthcare worker … and I know how dangerous pregnancy is,” said Grabowski, “and if they don't have access to this vital health care service, I think that people will die.”

She said her clinic has seen patients traveling from Ohio and West Virginia where abortion services were already limited even before the court’s ruling and it is anticipating the patient volume to “significantly increase” in the post-Roe context.

Grabowski‘s clinic won a union election last March, and the employees there are in the process of negotiating a first contract. She said her co-workers are “winning things” including better pay, more paid time off and greater workplace protections.

“Co-workers help a lot,” said Grabowski of the pressure that reproductive-rights workers face. “It’s something like having a close workspace, where you can take care of each other and somebody could step in when you need to step away.”

She added that there was “a lot more fear and desperation in the patients.

“And honestly, we're scared right there with them.” 

Laura Sochas, a postdoctoral researcher in the political economy of health field at Oxford University emphasized the connection between reproductive rights and labor rights.

“You can’t and shouldn’t separate the right to provide an abortion from the right to access an abortion,” said Sochas. “Unions can be powerful in fighting for both those rights together, for all workers who benefit from accessing an abortion (men and women), as well as for abortion providers.”

Sochas said worker organizing is a way to respond to the underfunding of health care across the world, and could be a channel “for healthcare workers to advocate for more resources at a national macroeconomic level.”

A quarter of clinics could close

In New York City, staff at the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization on sexual and reproductive health and rights, in May sent a letter asking to have their nascent union recognized and to pursue more protections, paths to promotion and advocate channels for employees. 

Guttmacher officials offered to voluntarily recognize the union, but with certain stipulations, including that employees would cede their right to strike, according to reporting by The Guardian

Guttmacher, in a statement, said that management accepted the staff's request for voluntary recognition “with the only ask that union organizers agree to a 4-month period of good-faith and respectful talk.”

Employees, though, petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for a union election, which is now scheduled for early July.

Institute officials said they would respect the outcome. “Guttmacher management has and will continue to encourage staff to participate in this election and exercise their right to vote,” a spokesperson said. 

Guttmacher employees at the time cited the court’s likely repeal of Roe as the crux of their unionizing efforts. “What we’re talking about are people then being able to focus on the work itself and move ahead and really face all these challenges that are coming down the pike,” Elizabeth Nash, a public policy analyst at Guttmacher, told the news site The 19th.

On the frontline of providing reproductive health-care services, doctors and nurses are seeking to ensure a healthy workplace for themselves in order to better support the patients.

Over 400 abortion workers with Planned Parenthood North Central States filed a union election petition last month in preparation for the challenges after Roe is overturned. Ashley Schmidt, a training and development specialist who works in Nebraska and Iowa, said in the SEIU release that a union would ensure that workers “provide the expert care our patients deserve while supporting the front-line heroes, especially in states where we know increased restrictions, bans and attacks, are coming.”

In the wake of the Court’s ruling, several states, including Kentucky, Louisiana and South Dakota, automatically banned abortion. “Trigger laws” enacted in case of Roe’s repeal now require either attorneys general, governors or legislatures to follow through on the high court’s opinion and ban abortion or started a 30-day period before bans take effect. 

According to a 2021 study from the University of California, San Francisco, the court’s decision could lead to the closure of 202 clinics, more than a quarter of the nation’s 790 abortion clinics.

“A lot of folks in certain states are just afraid they're gonna lose their jobs.” Grabowski said. And reproductive health workers have been talking about how to stand in solidarity with one another.

“We need to be well taken care of in a good workplace with good working conditions in order to be the top form for our patients,” she said.


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