What’s up in the fight for abortion rights

Labor and grassroots protesters provide needed momentum

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When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned abortion rights in June 2022, the nation erupted in fury. Grassroots groups like the National Mobilization for Reproductive Justice (NMRJ), Chicago for Abortion Rights (CFAR), MARRCH (Madison Abortion and Reproductive Rights Coalition for Healthcare), and Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights rapidly hit the streets.

Then came a full-court press to vote Republicans out of office. In the fall elections, initiatives protecting abortion rights and politicians seen as pro-choice did well. Clearly people in the U.S. want reproductive health care, so what is going on in the battle today?

Labor on the move. The National Mobilization, initiated in 2021 by Radical Women, and other grassroots groups continue to organize, educate and agitate. They are reaching out to a wide array of communities in order to build a multi-front fightback.

Excitingly, a growing number of labor unions recognize they have a huge stake in defending the full array of reproductive rights. All workers need the ability to control childbearing. Plus, the extremists harassing women and others who can give birth also target immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQ+ youth — among labor’s most vibrant sectors. The link with organized workers is key because they have the power to mobilize. In this way, the battle for reproductive justice could ignite a union-led movement against right-wing offensives on many fronts.

Steps in this direction are being accomplished by National Mobilization for Reproductive Justice, which is gathering signers on an open letter that urges AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler to call an emergency labor conference on reproductive justice.

In the first few weeks, over 140 labor organizations and individuals signed the letter. These include Alphabet Workers Union; American Federation of State, City and Municipal Employees Local 88; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Locals 46 and 520; Minnesota Nurses Union; Office & Professional Employees International Union Local 8; Washington Federation of State Employees Local 304; Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity, plus signers from Illinois, South Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, California and beyond.

MARRCH is also building union support in Wisconsin. An SEIU (Service Employees International Union) activist with the coalition coordinated “Why Abortion Rights Are Worker Rights,” a webinar sponsored by the local union federation on March 8.

Chicago for Abortion Rights also has strong labor ties. In 2022, they fielded a contingent in Chicago’s May Day march for labor and immigrant rights. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has carried its banner in the coalition’s marches. CTU and National Nurses United endorsed and spoke at the “October 8 National Day of Action for Abortion and Full Reproductive Rights” which CFAR led.

Momentum builders. The National Mobilization for Reproductive Justice along with MARRCH and CFAR bring together a broad range of communities. This January, the Mobilization’s Phoenix associate hooked up with drag performers who were protesting anti-trans bills, making a powerful joint statement for bodily autonomy.

New York disability activist Kendra Scalia states, “The Mobilization offers opportunities for the most marginalized communities to coalesce around and raise our voices against contemporary atrocities such as forced sterilization. Only a broad set of demands, like those elevated by the Mobilization, has the power to unite a mass movement.” (See demands at reprojusticenow.org.)

Well known for leading dynamic protests in numerous cities on the day of the SCOTUS decision, NMRJ was again in the streets for the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade Jan. 22, 2023. Members led or participated in high-spirited rallies in Seattle, New York City, Phoenix, Portland, Oregon, and Madison, Wisconsin. San Francisco marchers countered the annual anti-abortion “Walk for Life” on Jan. 21.

MARRCH organized a massive rally on Jan. 22 that filled the capitol rotunda to protest the complete loss of legal abortion in the state. CFAR aided the action and sent people and assistance to its neighboring state. The Women’s March co-sponsored and publicized the event as its national action, which helped draw wide participation.

Also on the streets in January was Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights, a mass organization of the Revolutionary Communist Party, which has faced off with pro-lifers in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Depending on the city, Rise Up may coordinate with others, but in general they do not engage in coalition building. They also tend to focus on the single demand for abortion rather than a broader approach, earning them a reputation for transphobia.

Meanwhile, big-name feminist groups like Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the National Organization for Women are largely absent from the fight except for collecting donations. More visible is the Women’s March, though it clings to the failed strategy of top-down organizing and relying on the Democratic Party to save reproductive rights. Women’s March has not built local chapters, so its petition campaign to state legislators to reverse abortion bans doesn’t have much strength behind it. Women’s March has called for a boycott of Walgreens, which announced it will not fill prescriptions for the abortion drug mifepristone in 20 states. The petition is handy online organizing, but overall, these liberal NGOs are too tame in the face of the right’s determined assault on abortion.

Collective power. Only a combative mass movement can back down the white supremacist, queer-hating misogynists — and pressure politicians to act.

NMRJ coordinator Helen Gilbert urges everyone who cares about human rights to join the fight and find ways for grassroots groups to collaborate with each other. She asks unions, union members, community groups, anti-fascist forces, and feminists to add their names to the call for an AFL-CIO emergency conference at tinyurl.com/letter2aflcio.

Building a powerful worker-led resistance is what the National Mobilization for Reproductive Justice is working toward. Get involved!

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