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Planned Parenthood Has a History of Trying to Beat Back Labor Unions

Erin Heger

Planned Parenthood has fought against workers' union drives since at least the early-2000s. “I’m passionate about reproductive health but ... I am so disillusioned by the exploitation of those working and sacrificing for the cause.”

Over her six years as a health center assistant at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains (PPRM), seeing discrepancies in how managers handle worker concerns is one of the reasons Amanda Martin started organizing for a union.  

“I’m pretty good at advocating for myself and I’ve had some success with having my concerns addressed, but it was a struggle. It took months,” Martin told Rewire.News. “Then seeing my colleagues get frustrated and quit because they weren’t getting what they needed, I thought, ‘This is not fair.’”

Seeing the need to band together to address their shared concerns over pay, benefits, turnover, and professional development, Martin and her colleagues got serious in 2017 about organizing a union at PPRM. This led to management pushing back and creating obstacles for union efforts, she said.

“Once we contacted SEIU (Service Employees International Union), it kind of flipped a switch,” Martin said. “They saw we were serious about this.”

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With the help of SEIU Local 105, PPRM workers won their election for a union in December 2017, but in the months leading up to the union election, PPRM management attempted to dissuade workers from supporting the union, Martin said, by distributing anti-union flyers and holding mandatory meetings meant to discourage workers from supporting the union. 

While PPRM is the most recent example of a Planned Parenthood affiliate pushing back against workers, it is not the only time the health-care organization has taken an oppositional stance to its workers organizing. 

Out of 56 Planned Parenthood affiliates across the United States, only five are unionized, according to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA): Planned Parenthood of New York City, Planned Parenthood Metro D.C., Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York, Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and Hawaiian Islands, and Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette.

In at least two of these cases, with Planned Parenthood of Columbia Willamette and Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York, workers have accused management of attempting to shut down union efforts.

Jessica Rubio, a nurse practitioner in North Carolina, said she experienced pushback 14 years ago when she and her colleagues tried to unionize at Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina (PPCNC).

“Management became very nasty,” Rubio told Rewire.News. “There was a lot of blatant intimidation.”

After seeing discrepancies in promotions and wanting to address concerns over pay and benefits, Rubio and several of her colleagues at PPCNC began organizing a union in 2004. They received immediate pushback, Rubio said, with management scheduling mandatory anti-union meetings as well as pulling workers aside in the hallway and telling them a union would hurt Planned Parenthood.

“There’s so much focus on the mission and the cause and people become, like at many nonprofits, very vulnerable to being manipulated into lower pay and less benefits for the cause,” Rubio said. “That really came out more when we were trying to unionize because it was a polarizing environment, people made comments that we were trying to hurt the cause.”

Rubio and her colleagues eventually won their union election, but management dragged out contract negotiations for so long that many workers ended up leaving and the bargaining unit dissolved.

“Progress was very slow in terms of negotiating a contract and people left for other opportunities. The bargaining unit lasted a couple years and then failed,” Rubio said. “If it had succeeded and those would have been unionized positions, it would have opened them up to more stability.”

Rubio worked as a health center assistant at PPCNC from 2001 to 2006. In 2015, PPCNC merged with Planned Parenthood Health Systems and under new leadership became Planned Parenthood South Atlantic (PPSA). Due to the merger and change in leadership, PPSA told Rewire.News they didn’t have anyone on staff who was there in 2004 and therefore couldn’t comment on workers’ union efforts.

Rubio’s experience trying to unionize at PPCNC ended with her vowing to never again work for a Planned Parenthood affiliate. “I’m passionate about reproductive health, but I’m sad to say that’s no longer funneled toward Planned Parenthood,” Rubio said. “I am so disillusioned by the exploitation of those working and sacrificing for the cause.”

PPRM management responded similarly to Martin and her colleagues’ organizing efforts, Martin said, sending several flyers to workers’ homes, urging them to vote no on the union. One of these flyers stated eight reasons workers should vote no, including that a union would negatively affect staff relationships, result in less flexible work hours and salary freezes, and would harm patient care.  

PPRM management held mandatory meetings for all staff members in which members of management and other employees discussed the negative impacts a union would have at PPRM. In these meetings, Martin said, the messages emphasized Planned Parenthood’s support for workers and unions, but that a union wasn’t needed at PPRM.

“They said we don’t need a union because we have an open-door policy,” Martin said. “But when there is a power dynamic, which we have at a hierarchical organization like PPRM, just having an open-door policy isn’t enough. There are still barriers.”

Whitney Phillips, spokesperson for PPRM claims the meetings were meant to be educational, informing workers of their options.

We hosted educational sessions throughout our multi-state region to ensure our colleagues had access to comprehensive information in order to make the best decision for themselves and their families,” Phillips said in an emailed statement. “These sessions included information about our competitive benefits and upward trend in salaries for health center staff.”

Since Martin and her colleagues began organizing, Martin says they have seen improvements in pay and in communication, but these issues have been ongoing for years and were only addressed after workers petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for their bargaining unit and won their election for a union.

Flyers with anti-union language and meetings dissuading employees from supporting a union are common tactics workers experience when trying to unionize, said Stephanie Felix, senior health-care organizer with SEIU Local 105. When enacted early in a unionizing campaign, these tactics can be effective at shutting down union efforts, Felix said.

“Workers trying to unionize face these kind of intense tactics all the time,” Felix told Rewire.News. “We were disappointed that a progressive ally such as PPRM used similar tactics as any other anti-union employer would use against its employees.”

Not only did PPRM management use anti-union tactics prior to the union election, but they are fighting their workers on a legal front as well. After PPRM workers won their union election, PPRM management appealed the vote to President Trump’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Fisher Phillips, a law firm that advertises “union avoidance” as one of its services is also representing PPRM.

PPRM’s bargaining unit includes 14 health centers, and PPRM officials said they appealed the initial ruling because they want workers at all 24 of PPRM’s health centers in Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico to be part of the bargaining unit. In April, Trump’s NLRB accepted the PPRM case for review, and a three-member panel ruled in PPRM’s favor. Martin and her colleagues are hopeful PPRM management will drop their appeal and move forward with negotiating a contract.

“Changes are never going to happen top down without the power of labor,” Martin said. “The culture change has to start from the bottom with the people most impacted.”

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