Planned Parenthood Staffers Are Unionizing to Prepare for Life After Roe

Massachusetts workers nearly unanimously formed a union Wednesday, and more from the Midwest may join them soon.
Planned Parenthood leads the Gay Pride March with a new sense of political urgency after the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade, on June 26, 2022 in New York City, New York. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
Planned Parenthood leads the Gay Pride March with a new sense of political urgency after the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade, on June 26, 2022 in New York City, New York. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Employees at Planned Parenthood’s state affiliate in Massachusetts voted almost unanimously for a union Wednesday, as abortion care workers deal with the fallout from the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which overturned the national right to have an abortion in America. And some workers say the win will give them a desperately needed voice in the workplace as they prepare to serve a flood of out-of-state patients as more and more states restrict or ban abortion.

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Workers at the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, which runs clinics in Boston, Springfield, Worcester, and Marlborough, voted 92-1 to unionize with SEIU 1199 Healthcare Workers East, the National Labor Relations Board announced Wednesday. The unit contains 130 Planned Parenthood workers.

“Right now we don’t get a lot of good news in this type of work,” Cara Callahan, who has worked at Planned Parenthood for nine years in a variety of roles, told VICE News Wednesday. “So it was definitely, really wonderful for this to happen and tapping on the scale that it did… For it to be as wide of a margin as it was, I think was just an extra reinforcement.”

Callahan said that workers had first started talking about organizing three years ago, but that the pandemic exacerbated staffing shortages, as well as staff “not feeling like they were being heard by leadership and management.”

“We were seeing a lot of patients compared to the  staffing ratio that we had, we were pretty much all facing burnout,” Courtney Barry, who has worked for Planned Parenthood in Massachusetts for three years, told VICE News. “And no matter how much we voiced it, it was like we were not getting heard. There was no change in the amount of patients we were seeing.”

Though Planned Parenthood affiliates across the country have a history of fighting unionization drives, the last several years have seen a wave of unionization in the sector. Staff at 10 of 49 Planned Parenthood Affiliates and national offices in New York, D.C., and Miami had unionized as of 2020, Lux reported in 2020

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In addition to Massachusetts, nearly 400 workers at Planned Parenthood North Central States—which operates facilities in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska—voted on whether to unionize with SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and Iowa, and will find out the results July 21. 

Planned Parenthood workers in Massachusetts filed for their election two weeks after the leak of the draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. “I think that nonprofits right now are kind of going through this shift in culture, where the need for liberal-minded organizations feels very urgent. And yet it also feels like the workers are being ignored,” Callahan said. 

“So when a lot of leaders came out to say Massachusetts is ready for an influx of patients, we felt like we really wanted to get our union going as soon as possible, so that we could also feel like we could help see an influx of patients. It was very real to us from the moment [Dobbs] happened.”

In a statement, Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts president and CEO Dr. Jennifer Childs-Roshak told VICE News that the affiliate “has a long history of working alongside labor justice partners, and we respect our employees' decision.”

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“After today’s vote, we remain committed to making the best decisions possible for all of our employees, patients, and communities, and look forward to a productive collective bargaining process."

Callahan said that even before the Dobbs decision came down last month, Planned Parenthood facilities in Massachusetts had begun seeing an “uptick” in patients from states like Florida and Texas, which passed a six-week abortion ban last year, Florida. They even saw patients from neighboring New Hampshire, which permits abortion up to 24 weeks but doesn’t allow Medicaid to fund the procedure except in cases of rape, incest, or the health of the mother. 

“As clinics fill up, people are being pushed further and further away,” Callahan said. “If they can’t get to anywhere between Texas and Massachusetts and have a family member [in Massachusetts], and Massachusetts is the first place that can help them, it makes just as much sense to fly here as it does anywhere else.”

Callahan said that in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, she expects more and more abortion care workers to organize themselves—not only to improve their own conditions, but to help patients receive the best care they can as well. “Instead of just leaving these organizations, folks are really feeling how important the care that we give is, and are willing to do things now that they may have not been willing to do [in the past] including unionizing,” Callahan said. 

“It just makes a lot of sense for Planned Parenthood health centers to have unionized staff,” she added. “It can feel very disconnected between the leadership and the people making these declarations versus the people who are doing the work on the ground.”

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