Stewards Corner: Abortion Restrictions, What Can the Union Do?
At Local 911, Chief Steward Emma woke up to an angry text from member Jane about having her time off request refused by the boss.
Emma followed up with Jane at work later that day. “Look, Emma, this isn’t just a request to go have fun,” Jane said. “I need to take my daughter over to Pennsylvania to get an abortion, and we have to wait there for 24 hours before she can have the procedure. You know my kid—she’s got big hopes and dreams, and she doesn’t want to have a kid right now. I’ve got to go with her, but I don’t want to lose my job over this.”
Emma confirmed that Jane was eligible for paid time off; the boss had simply refused to grant the request.
Emma confronted the boss about his denial. “Hyde, Jane needs this time off to help a family member with a medical procedure,” Emma said. “You gave Bruce time off to stay home with his daughter Jody when she needed her appendix out. How is this any different?”
“It’s different because I say it is,” grumbled Hyde.
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Following the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade in June 2022, many states across the country have enacted new legal barriers to accessing abortion and other reproductive health care. Reproductive health care affects members, spouses, and children of members and should be a priority for stewards.
The right to an abortion now varies by state. More than half of U.S. states still offer safe and legal abortions, though some have mandatory waiting periods that make it difficult to obtain abortion care. Visit abortionfinder.org to find up-to-date summaries of what care is and isn’t allowed in your state.
WHY THIS IS A UNION ISSUE
In our union, the United Electrical workers, we push back against all attempts to divide the working class, including those that force people out of work to have or care for children. In the women’s rights resolution passed at the last convention, delegates affirmed that the union:
“supports the right of all those seeking reproductive health care, regardless of economic status, to choose whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy, to have access to free, confidential, and effective birth control and family planning services, to be protected against forced sterilization, and not be discriminated against because of reproductive health issues, and demands that state legislatures end all restrictions on these rights.”
Though this topic has sometimes led to robust discussion during conventions, a majority of delegates consistently agree that the union supports the rights of all workers to choose what is best for their own bodies, and not have their choices be limited by governments or employers.
Our union’s officers stated after the Dobbs Supreme Court decision that without the right to control their own bodies, women and pregnant people will face increased barriers to participating fully in society, including in their unions. Without their full participation, the unity that is essential to winning gains for workers and the working class will be weakened.
WHAT TO DO
Review your health insurance and time off provisions that might impact access to reproductive health care, as outlined below. There are a lot of details to clarify. Consider forming a union committee or working group to investigate the options in your area and make recommendations to the local’s leadership. Invite interested members to participate—it may be an opportunity to develop new leaders who are passionate about this topic.
Make sure that reproductive health care is covered under the employer’s insurance for everyone, including spouses and dependents in addition to employees, even if this means traveling out of state to receive care. Demand that this care will be covered at “in network” rates, even if someone has to travel out of the area to receive the care they need. Be sure to check that medication abortions are covered by the plan’s prescription benefits.
This is a good time to demand paid family leave, or more of it if you already have it. It can be used for the worker’s care, or for the worker to care for anyone in their family who might need it. This should include time off to recover from reproductive health care services. This is something that should interest all members, regardless of their personal stance on abortion.
Many states require mandatory waiting periods between a consultation with an abortion provider and actually receiving abortion care. Mandatory waiting periods range from 24 to 72 hours. Because of this, many people seeking abortion care will need to take more than one day off work. Locals should make sure members are able to get time off to travel and wait for care if necessary, both for themselves and for other family members.
Investigate the reproductive health care services that are available in your area and under your health insurance. In some places, the closest medical providers may not offer these services because of religious or other reasons. If that is the case, the local will need to advocate for out-of-area options to be fully covered.
Now is an important time to expand anti-discrimination clauses, or to demand them if you do not have them. Within the Dobbs ruling, the Supreme Court has made it clear they will reconsider other rights, like same-sex marriage. Make sure your contract includes “domestic partner” benefits.
Use this as an opportunity to talk with members about the need for single-payer health care. Workers should not have to rely on our employers for access to health care of any kind.
In states where access to abortion has been taken away, locals should bargain for paid time off and funds to travel to receive care in a providing state.