Organizing for abortion rights at Labor Notes

AFSCME Local 88 members Robin Easton-Davis (left) and Jordana Sardo (right), from Portland, Oregon, make some noise at the Labor Notes conference in Chicago. PHOTO: Jordana Sardo / FS
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“It’s a no-brainer” said a Labor Notes 2024 participant when asked if they supported reproductive rights. And they eagerly signed an open letter to Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, urging the federation to host a national labor emergency conference for reproductive justice. That refrain — for reproductive justice — echoed from person to person throughout the April 2024 Labor Notes conference held in Chicago.

Labor Notes gathers activists from across the U.S. and the world to strengthen solidarity and share strategies to put “the movement back into the labor movement.” What began in 1979 as a monthly magazine has grown to include Troublemakers Schools, book publishing, a website of labor news and resources, and a rambunctious conference every two years. The prime mission is to build union democracy and workers’ power.

I was grateful to be an extrovert because this conference was a rigorous and invigorating marathon of workshops, huddles and panels. Informal conversations were held while standing in line for food or while getting outside for a breath of fresh air. Over 4,000 participants exchanged news, strategies, challenges, and solidarity for the many struggles workers face on the job and in their communities. I attended with my union contingent from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 88 (Portland, Oregon), and as the labor coordinator for the National Mobilization for Reproductive Justice.

Armed with fliers and the open letter to Liz Shuler from the National Mobilization, I went to my first workshop. It addressed reproductive justice. The panel was composed of a journalist and abortion clinic labor organizers. Their travails of forming unions in their workplaces were inspiring, but the room was far too small. I sat on the floor in the back with others, packed together like sardines. Clearly, this topic was a high priority for participants. After the presentations, I shared how National Mobilization members were successfully engaging organized labor in the fight for bodily autonomy. The response from people in the workshop was terrific! Folks eagerly signed the open letter and took fliers to bring back to their unions.

In other workshops, many panelists recognized reproductive justice as a working-class issue and stressed that labor needed to broaden its vision beyond the classic “bread and butter” demands of wages and benefits. Unfortunately, out of over 200 workshops only six were “women” themed. The right to abortion may be a key electoral issue, as well as a survival question for many, but there was only one workshop dedicated to reproductive justice. And it was geared more to organizing clinics than building labor’s muscle to win back the right for child-bearing people to decide when and whether to have children.

Nearly every unionist I spoke to agreed that organized labor needed to take leadership on this crucial issue. Of course, there were some folks who just nodded and changed the subject, but they were a distinct minority. Abortion rights, contraception, and childcare — to name a few issues — are important to most.

It was unfortunate that conference organizers did not “read the room” for women’s concerns because my conversations with attendees reflected ardent support for pushing back against the rightward political trend destroying our rights.

Women, particularly women of color, immigrants, and those in the LGBTQ+ community, are the most affected by lack of access to needed health care. This makes reproductive justice an economic, race, sexuality and gender issue. It is these very same folks who are doing much of the organizing in the labor movement. They are key to the survival of unions. It can no longer be a question whether abortion and bodily autonomy are labor issues.

Solidarity was a major theme at the conference, as was the importance of building relationships that move all struggles forward — whether in organizing a union, building pressure for a contract, or winning social justice fights. Organized labor has a key role to play in defending and expanding reproductive justice, from the right to sex education and contraception to improving safety in birthing and the termination of pregnancies.

It’s time for the top union leaders to do more than issue statements; they need to act. In Chicago, I saw huge support for the Mobilization’s call for the AFL-CIO to take the lead in bringing labor together to discuss strategies for action.

One panelist in the reproductive justice workshop proclaimed, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Well, I’ll be in Washington, D.C., on June 24 at a press conference asking Liz Shuler and the AFL-CIO to act now. I will be joined by representatives from a dozen unions and community groups who will speak out to the press and deliver over 600 open letters to the federation. It’s the next step in this vital campaign. We are going to ask, and we expect to get!

Check out ReproJusticeNow.org for more information on the National Mobilization for Reproductive Justice and how to view the livestream of the June 24 press conference.

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