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The Curious Case of the Planned Parenthood Union Struggle

Trump’s National Labor Relations Board will soon decide the fate of reproductive rights workers in the Rocky Mountains

Eliott Foust/ZUMA

Fort Collins, Colorado, U.S - A man holds a sign in support of Planned Parenthood at a rally in Fort Collins, Colorado. The rally was held to support funding for Planned Parenthood and to advocate for women's rights.

It’s a narrative that conservative reporters rarely miss: A liberal organization rails against regressive Republican policies, but when the company’s own workers try to unionize, management balks.

There have been several of these stories in recent years, with worker-management tiffs at progressive shops like Media Matters and Slate probably garnering the most attention.

The latest counterintuitive brouhaha is taking place in Colorado, where workers at Planned Parenthood have reportedly been blocked from unionizing by management.

The lives of employees at Planned Parenthood clinics are not easy. They deal constantly with boisterous and threatening protesters, and they work long and irregular hours, with little opportunity for advancement. There are other frustrations.

“One of the big things has been wages,” says Amanda Martin, a health center worker at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains (PPRM) who has worked all over the region. “Wages have really been stagnant.”

Martin, who says working at Planned Parenthood is “absolutely the most rewarding job in my entire life,” is quick to explain that the wage issue is about more than money.

She says the low wages mean constant staff turnover, which in turn means that those who remain spend an inordinate amount of time training new employees, when they could be providing services.

“When you’re constantly training,” Martin says, “it’s hard to do your job.”

The workers at the Rocky Mountain affiliate initially tried informally discussing issues with their CEO, Vicki Cowart.

The response was bizarre. The local Planned Parenthood management held what Martin calls “captive audience meetings” in which employees were instructed to sit and listen to sermons on the negatives of unionizing.

“The first one we had was in July [of 2017],” Martin says. In order to make time for the worker instruction on unions, “we shut down services for a day,” Martin says.

A PPRM spokesperson insists that these meetings didn’t interfere with services. “[The sessions] were mandatory, because we were paying the workers,” the spokesperson said. “But they were scheduled around patient care.”

Management also sent an anti-union mailer to the homes of workers. It read:

BE SURE YOU HAVE ALL THE FACTS AND VOTE NO

The flier warned about union dues and fees, and claimed union membership would result in pay freezes and slower raises (because collective bargaining takes time). It also said union membership would “impact promotions” and would “negatively impact the relationship you have with your health center manager.”

The workers continued on the track to unionizing, however. With the aid of the Service Employees International Union, 153 workers from Colorado offices organized and held a vote. By a 72-57 tally, they finally decided last December to form a union, with the idea of collectively bargaining for changes.

Soon after the vote, management announced it was requesting a National Labor Relations Board review of the tally.

Management had argued against unionization before the vote. It now argued that it really wanted all of its offices to organize, and claimed the election was invalid because workers in its offices in New Mexico and Nevada did not participate in the election.

“We want every single worker in every single clinic to have a voice in this process,” is how the PPRM spokesperson put it.

A three-person committee of the NLRB voted on the issue. This first round of votes went 2-1 against the workers. The two “nay” votes were Trump appointees. The pro-union vote came from an Obama appointee.

Workers are now at the mercy of the full five-member NLRB, which contains three Trump appointees.

The workers believe the NLRB is likely to hand down a decision soon. No matter how it rules, it will almost certainly result in blaring Fox headlines and a mathematically inexpressible Trump gloat level.

It would almost be worse if Trump’s NLRB rules for the workers. The president would probably break both of his questionably sized arms rushing to pat himself on the back via tweet, something like, “Pathetic & hypocritical Planned Parenthood begged me to stop their workers from unionizing…Sad!”

For this reason, the Planned Parenthood workers are asking supporters and donors to send a note to management, asking them to drop their opposition to collective bargaining.

For its part, management feels that it is unfair to characterize what they are doing as appealing to the Trump administration for help. As the spokesperson put it, the NLRB is the only option for resolving such disputes.

The workers hope that supporters will appeal to Planned Parenthood to take this issue out of the hands of Trump’s NLRB, at a time when the president is trying to amend Title X to strip federal funding from any organization that provides abortions. Similar public appeals helped end a unionization standoff within the National Abortion Foundation (NAF).

“They’re treating us like the people who gather outside the clinics,” says Martin. “That really hurts.”

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