Reproductive Rights at the Bargaining Table

Reproductive Rights at the Bargaining Table

A roundtable on Dobbs and organized labor.

From left, clockwise: Sara Nelson, Rebekah Nelson, Dee Dunn, Rebecca Kolins Givan, Maggie Carter, and Martha Valadez (Molly Crabapple)

The following conversation on labor’s response to Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization took place on October 19, 2022. The panel was organized by the Labor Campaign for Single Payer. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Rebecca Kolins Givan: Abortion is healthcare, and healthcare is a workers’ issue. What do you do when your employer controls healthcare access? Conversations about the despicable state of access to abortion and other reproductive care have to lead us to bigger conversations about the inherent flaws in our healthcare system, and what we must do as workers and as a labor movement about that.

Sara Nelson: The rollback of abortion rights is not just a healthcare issue. It’s not just a choice issue. It’s fundamentally an issue of freedom, humanity, and dignity. What can we do to help maintain reproductive rights at the bargaining table?

We have to understand that taking away a woman’s right to access healthcare, a woman’s right to make her own decisions in her life, is taking half of the population off the table. And it allows the boss to divide people along lines that weaken the working class and make it harder for people to organize.

In my union, the flight attendants I represent may take off in one state with one set of rights and land in another state with another set of rights. They’re in danger every single day that someone could deny them the right to basic healthcare, to save their lives, to make their own decisions. 

When I first started doing union work, I had the honor of interviewing the number-one flight attendant at United Airlines. She flew for almost sixty years. She flew all over the world in the 1950s and talked with aircraft manufacturers, governments, and civil aviation bodies, to get evacuation standards and safety equipment onto planes. She had an amazing life, but what she really wanted to talk to me about was something that I had never experienced because I was born in 1973. She wanted to tell me about what it was like when women had to have illegal abortions in order to keep their jobs as flight attendants or to get out of abusive relationships. She would have to help them do that. Though she did not believe in abortion herself, she understood her duty to represent these women and get them to safety. 

So we can’t just talk about this as another issue on the ballot. We have to understand that this is an attack on our very right to organize, an attack on our ability to build power for the working class, an attack on our ability to put a check on the unchecked capitalism that is controlling our politics and sending us on the road to fascism. It is fundamental that we fight with everything that we have for the rights of women to make their own decisions in their own lives. 

Dee Dunn: I’m a member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, the women and men who build and maintain America’s railroads. The United Passenger Rail Federation Women’s Caucus has gone on record as being 100 percent pro-choice. Even though some of us have beliefs in our personal lives that will prevent us from getting an abortion under most circumstances, we believe that reproductive healthcare decisions, like all healthcare decisions, should be made between patients and their doctors without interference from the government or any other outside force. 

The fight for the right to abortion is part of a greater fight for reproductive and healthcare justice, which also includes the fight for single-payer healthcare, universal child care, a living wage, and affordable housing. All of these factors influence the ability of a working woman to raise a child or to decide not to go ahead with a pregnancy because the child cannot be adequately cared for. About four years ago, our caucus ran a campaign within our union to get our national division to include paid parental leave as a bargaining demand for our contracts with the freight railroad and with Amtrak. While we were not successful at winning the benefit on the freight side, we are still bargaining with Amtrak. A demand for paid parental leave had never previously been raised in negotiations in our unions; and making it part of the process was itself a victory. Moreover, our campaign led our national division president to make paid parental leave a benefit for our national union staff. 

Since healthcare access is a union issue, it is incumbent upon unions to protect their members’ rights to access family planning services and abortion care. Unions must look to strengthen existing collective bargaining agreements and health insurance coverage to protect their members’ access to the reproductive healthcare they may need. 

Our health insurance through Amtrak covered the cost of abortions even before the Supreme Court’s decision was issued. Recently, our plan was upgraded by the union management group that oversees our health insurance plan to include coverage for the cost of access to abortions for employees living in states with laws prohibiting abortions. This coverage extends to women employees, the wives of male employees, and dependent children. While this type of benefit is good to address the immediate need, it has the same long-term problem as relying on your employer for your healthcare. If you lose your job or you go on strike, you lose your healthcare, and employers limit wage increases because of the healthcare costs. Additionally, who really wants to go to a boss and request their benefits because they are planning to have an abortion? These decisions are highly personal. Women should have their privacy protected. 

We live in a nation that fails to provide any economic support for the cost of raising children. This makes forcing women to bear children against their will even more of an outrage. The Supreme Court is bent on systematically destroying any rights that put even a miniscule amount of power in the hands of poor and working-class Americans. We have already seen attacks on unions by the court in the devastating Janus ruling. From chipping away our voting rights to the reversal on environmental protection, our very democracy is in a great jeopardy. As unionized workers, it falls to us to organize within our workplaces and within our union for reproductive and healthcare justice, and to stand up together for all the rights that we have fought so hard to gain. 

Maggie Carter: Starbucks has continuously waged war on partners for raising their voices. They fired seven of my friends in Memphis and over 120 of my comrades across the country. They hold captive-audience meetings. They continuously retaliate against partners who appear to be pro-union. They dangle the benefits that we do have over our heads as if we will not have them if we continue to organize—including abortion benefits. 

I go into work every single day with some of the strongest people that I’ve ever met, and the majority of those people are women. The fact that they’re able to use abortion access for union-busting in the South is really sickening. This is one of the many reasons why we should continue to organize in states where leadership has failed to show up for us. 

Martha Valadez: I’ve only been with my union since June 2020. In our first meeting [after the Dobbs decision], we talked about abortion access, gender-affirming care, and bodily autonomy. It was amazing that I was part of a union that was creating spaces for us to talk about these issues, figure out strategies and tactics, and provide resources for our membership to distribute knowledge and to share power in their locals. 

I was able to research the union’s health insurance broker. We looked at vendors to figure out if there’s one that would be willing to provide a program around abortion access and gender-affirming care and create an interim policy (because our contract isn’t up for negotiation until the end of next year). Then we got a group of people together to edit, offer feedback, and consult within our unit. We took the draft back to our national representatives to revise. 

Before, I didn’t know anything about insurance. I just knew that my body was being limited here in Texas. [I couldn’t] even think about getting gender-affirming care or figure out what I would do if I needed to get an abortion. Our policy now covers up to the taxable amount, $5,000, for travel expenses, for care, for the service, and even for assistance for a loved one to come and accompany you. 

This past Monday, I went into a labor, management, and union meeting to flesh out the details on the language. It was just amazing to be able to bring folks together and hear management say: this is important, we are aligning our values as a progressive organization. It will be the first policy of its kind within the nonprofit sector that we know of. We can share it and energize other folks to do the same. 

Rebekah Nelson: I’m the chair of the Governmental Affairs Commission for the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA). As a clinician, my practice specialty area is perianesthesia. At work, I routinely provide care for reproductive emergencies and reproductive health issues: complicated miscarriages with hemorrhaging, ectopic pregnancies, terminating pregnancies related to birth defects in the first and second trimester. This is really an issue that I work with almost every day.

If reproductive healthcare access in Minnesota were restricted or banned entirely, we would see a lot more emergencies. As nurses, we are used to dealing with emergencies. But do not think for one minute that this isn’t hard on us personally. Every time I have to care for a woman who has a reproductive health issue in the middle of the night, I end up crying in the elevator. It’s a real workplace issue for us, which is one reason I feel so strongly about this. 

Under my leadership, the Governmental Affairs Commission passed a resolution, the Organizational Support for Women’s Right to Reproductive Health Justice, at our annual convention in early October. The first thing the resolution does is allow the MNA to work in coalition with organizations that support issues around reproductive justice in women’s healthcare, like Planned Parenthood or other local organizations. Second, it enables our lobbyists to support state legislation that would codify women’s healthcare rights. Third, it prohibits the MNA from endorsing anti-choice candidates for elected office in the state of Minnesota. Fourth, it allows the MNA organizing staff to consider unionizing facilities that provide full access to women’s healthcare. The MNA mostly has nurse members, but we do also have some other types of members like techs and pharmacists. We can consider organizing facilities like Planned Parenthood that provide abortion services.

Why did we do this? The MNA previously did not have a position on reproductive justice. My understanding is that former leaders didn’t want to take it up because they were afraid it was divisive. Although there were some historical barriers to getting this work done, it ultimately proved to be a popular position, and it passed without a lot of difficulty, in about six months. 

I will not say that I didn’t get any pushback, because I did. We have a contingent of more conservative folks that simply don’t agree with choice because of politics or because of religion. But still, I want people to realize that these are super popular policies. People, especially women, don’t want their choice taken away. Even Republican women, even conservative women, even religious women. So ultimately the resolution passed without a lot of changes on the convention floor. Our members are all over the map politically, but we got it done. 

Givan: In states where reproductive health is safer, what can folks do to support the immediate needs of others?

Valadez: Donating is always great. It’s a real privilege that we have an insurance broker that helped us to access a service outside of my state. But for folks and unions here in the state, it will be a lot harder. It’s important to build solidarity, connections, and resources for folks who may not be represented, may not be in unions, or may not have union rights in right-to-work states. 

S. Nelson: Thank you for saying that we have to take care of the people who need help right now. But we also have to be definitive about the fact that this ruling has to be overturned immediately. It is urgent that we pass a law that provides women with full and equal rights, period. 

When the Dobbs decision came out, I wrote to each airline CEO and asked them to speak out and publicly put out their policy on travel. Many of them wrote to me and said, “We’re going to communicate with the employees and tell them this.” They were all afraid to say something. 

Every single one of those CEOs is a man. Every single one of them has children. And maybe they only have children because the people they had children with had access to full healthcare. When people have full access to healthcare, you have lower infant mortality, and you have fewer deaths of women in childbirth. Women who have money and have access will be able to get those abortions, while other women will die. 

We need to put real pressure on corporations that say that they want to sell airplane tickets to women and open up supply-chain jobs to women. We need to be calling on each one of these corporations to speak out right now and say how this decision is going to harm their business, say that this country has to reverse this, or the people that they are calling their customers will not be able to be consumers or workers. These corporations, with their silence, are adding to the emergencies, the hell that Rebekah and her coworkers are going through.

And we have to understand as the working class that if we’re not on top of this, we are undermining our ability to hold capital accountable, to change everything else that we want to change. Corporations have spoken out on other social issues. We cannot be afraid as women to demand that they speak out on this too.

Givan: How can you talk with your coworkers who may not be as on board? 

Dunn: With men, when we use the tactic, “What about your family? What about your daughters? What about your wives?” they listen to us. It’s not only about talking in the workplace, but outside the workplace. 

Carter: I haven’t run into this issue, but if I did, I would take a very similar approach to Dee and say, “What if it was your daughter or your sister or your cousin who is about to graduate college, or any of these scenarios that happen to women every single day?” That’s got to bring some empathy for someone. 

We have record inflation right now, and we don’t have a system that supports working mothers to take the time off work. Seven years ago, I worked up until two days before I gave birth to my son. These are experiences that I would share in these conversations, as well as just saying that this is a healthcare issue. It’s not a religious issue; it is a healthcare issue, and women deserve access to healthcare.

Valadez: We need more unions and we need more representation. There are still so many people who need to be covered, who need to be protected, who deserve access to healthcare and the right to make their own decisions about their bodies. And it’s important for us to think about gender-affirming care and gender-affirming language when we’re talking about abortion access. 

Carter: Organize—in your workplace, with political action, or collective action in any capacity. We need as much of it as we can get right now. It’s time for us to get out in the streets and be loud as hell, be mad as hell, and really cause some ruckus. 

Dunn: We need to let them know we will not be going backward. We’re going to keep pushing forward on all this, and we’re not going to stop until everybody gets healthcare. 

S. Nelson: We need to be inclusive. We need to speak up. And we need to recognize that the labor movement is not just the people who are already in unions, but all the people that we need to reach out to. We need to get unions into their hands. 

This issue is about speaking up for all people who don’t yet have a way to speak up for themselves, because that’s how we’re going to build power to get what we really need. And it’s important to link this back to single-payer healthcare, to healthcare as a human right, because if we have that, then we don’t have to depend on employers. 

Givan: We need to take healthcare off the bargaining table, but, while we’re doing that, we have to put abortion back on the bargaining table.

Maggie Carter is a Starbucks barista in Knoxville, Tennessee, and a member of Starbucks Workers United.

Dee Dunn is a safety liaison and member of the Womens Caucus of the BMWED United Passenger Rail Federation.

Rebecca Kolins Givan is an associate professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

Rebekah Nelson is the chair of the Minnesota Nurses Association’s Governmental Affairs Commission.

Sara Nelson is the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO.

Martha Valadez is a labor steward, an organizer for Jobs with Justice, and a member of the News Guild Abortion Access and Health Care Autonomy Working Group.