The Guttmacher Institute, a leading research NGO for reproductive rights, has for many years been plagued by a toxic work environment. On July 7, 97 percent of workers at the Guttmacher Institute voted to unionize and form the Guttmacher Union, a major step forward to gain agency in their workplace and fight for better conditions. Only an hour later, a main organizer of the union, Sam Heyne, was fired as a blatant attack on the union and attempt to union bust. Left Voice sat down to discuss her firing and the connections between reproductive rights and worker rights.
Could you introduce yourself and explain what happened recently?
My name is Sam, and I use they/she pronouns. I was a Learning and Development Specialist at the Guttmacher Institute, which is the leading reproductive health and rights research and policy organization. I’m relatively new to the repro space; I started just under a year ago, in August 2021. My role was on the H.R. team within the Finance and Administration division. I was hired largely to help create leadership trainings and other learning and development opportunities for staff.
I’ve always approached my job from the perspective of, “how can I support the workers at whatever organization I’m in?” Guttmacher was very much a dream job for me. I can advocate for the people doing the critical research in this pivotal moment in history and make sure that they have the tools that they need to be successful.
It was no secret that there is a very toxic culture at Guttmacher. There are articles, social media posts, and Glassdoor reviews that highlight current and former employees’ experiences with racism and retaliation. I was aware of that and I had observed some things myself.
I quickly got on board with the union organizing effort because I thought, what better way to make sure that workers are set up for success than by giving them a voice and a seat at the table.
As I said, I was in the Finance and Administration division. It’s definitely the division where there is the most pervasive culture of fear of retaliation.
On Tuesday, July 12 at 9:45 a.m., we had our vote count. We won in a landslide. It was very, very exciting. 97 percent of the vote. It was historic. We had been working tirelessly for this, and a huge shout out to everybody else in the organizing committee because they work so hard and were still putting in crazy hours outside of work building an incredible union campaign. It was the honor of my life to work with them.
At 11:30 a.m., the results were announced, and I was so proud and happy. At noon, we had a celebratory zoom.
I left at 12:45 p.m. to get a snack and logged back on at around 1:00 p.m.. Almost immediately, I got a Microsoft Teams call that was from Maureen Burnley, the VP of my division, and Lisa Blain, my boss, the director of HR.
So, I answered. They immediately kicked off the conversation saying, “We have some questions for you,” which established that this was an investigatory meeting. They began to question me about my recent advocacy for another employee who was in a vulnerable situation. This employee is still working at Guttmacher, and I will refrain from sharing any details about their situation to protect their identity.
I responded that I wanted to exercise my Weingarten rights to have a union representative with me in the meeting. I asked to pause the conversation until I could have a union representative there with me. They said that that was absolutely fine, that they respected my rights, and that I could have a union representative with me. Then they said, “We do want you to know that you are terminated effective today.”
When I asked if they could please tell me why I was being fired, they responded, “No, you just asked for a union representative. We don’t want to talk to you about this without your union representative here. We’re actually just going to end this call now.”
And then the call ended.
They immediately took control of my computer screen. All of a sudden, I couldn’t control my cursor. They shut everything down, shut down my laptop, and that was it. And then I didn’t hear anything about the terms of my firing. I didn’t know if I was getting severance. I didn’t know when my insurance was going to be taken away.
The call was very short and I didn’t hear anything from them until over 24 hours later. Eventually, I got an email: this is going to be your final pay, no severance, and this is when you will lose your insurance.
In another anti-worker move, two weeks prior, another person on my team with a union eligible position was immediately let go. Their reason for the firing was “restructuring.” When pressed, they said that they’re replacing that position with an HR generalist position, which is conveniently not a union eligible position.
Can you talk a little bit about the union drive? How did it start?
It had definitely been ongoing long before I got there. The workers were fighting for the kind of labor rights that people usually fight for, such as higher wages, better benefits, and even just to have a seat at the table and to have their voices heard. Obviously the people that are hands-on doing the research [and] the policy work should have a seat at the table.
I would say there’s a misconception that working conditions must be awful for people to [want to] unionize. And that’s not the case. Everybody deserves a union. A union provides labor protections and mutual support that make workplaces safer, healthier, and better.
We won our union vote in a landslide. What we want is to come to the table, to work together, to build a culture where people feel safe to share their voice and speak out if something is not right or if there is something that they’re concerned about. Because right now, of course, that culture doesn’t exist. People are very scared. I mean, look at what happened to me. This is why they’re scared. Because you speak out, you’re vocally supportive, and you risk retaliation. In my case, I got fired. There’s definitely validity to those fears.
I think the bottom line, though, is that the unionization drive really shows the deep love and dedication that people have to the incredible work that Guttmacher produces. After experiencing some tough macro-level conditions and how terribly scary the world is right now on top of difficult working conditions and emotionally-taxing work in a post-Roe world, Guttmacher Employees United were willing to vote yes and say, “we want to use our voices and be a part of shaping the future of the reproductive rights movement.” And that is so beautiful.
At first the Guttmacher Institute said that they were going to voluntarily recognize you, but then ended up fighting the union. Can you talk a little bit about the union busting during the process of trying to unionize?
Yes. They hired Jackson Lewis, the famous union busting law firm. They wrote the book on union busting. It’s called Winning NLRB Elections: Avoiding unionization through preventive employee relations programs. And management did say from the get go, “Oh yeah, we’ll voluntarily recognize you for sure.” So they sent the terms of their voluntary recognition and they were extremely limiting of our bargaining power. They were trying to include a non-disparagement clause, basically saying that we couldn’t speak out in any way that management would perceive as negative.
They also wanted a no strike, no lockout clause. So we would have to agree to not strike and that would, again, yield a lot of our bargaining power as a union. We said no way. We knew we would win our union election, which we did in a landslide. So we went that route and here we are, still with the union.
You guys were in the middle of this unionizing process as Roe v. Wade was being overturned. Can you talk a little bit about the connection you see between the fight for the union and the fight for reproductive rights?
The bottom line is that labor rights are reproductive rights. That’s what we’ve been fighting for. People deserve autonomy over their bodies and their reproductive choices, and obviously their rights as workers are an extension of that. Rights to things like health insurance, family leave, having a stable paycheck, and safe working conditions. All of these are huge factors that can help you determine if you can have a family or if you’re able to make autonomous reproductive choices and afford reproductive healthcare.
No one is doubting that Guttmacher is an incredible institution. The caliber of research and work they produce is unparalleled. However, it’s the workers that are doing that work and they deserve to be supported and to have rights. I don’t think that should be controversial.
Obviously, what happened to me, it can just keep happening unless we have solidarity with one another and speak out. I don’t want this to happen to anybody else.
What do you see as the specific difficulties of organizing under a nonprofit, especially a nonprofit that has this reputation?
It’s tough because obviously nonprofits are still functioning under a capitalistic system. These labor rights issues are not just limited to big companies like Amazon and Starbucks. This is happening everywhere.
I think people are especially shy to talk about it in the nonprofit space because it’s so often framed as “Oh, well, you’re doing something that you’re pouring your heart into. So, you’re just being selfish if you want rights. You’re causing a distraction from the bigger issues and centering yourself.” This messaging is harmful because nonprofit workers are exploited all the time.
Even if it’s a “labor of love,” something that you’re passionate about, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to afford your rent. Especially right now. It’s such a scary time with inflation and things are more expensive than they’ve ever been.
And the emotional toll that working in this space takes right now, folks are burning out, just running on fumes. They’re just immersed in really, really, really sad stories and news all the time, and then they have to figure out if they can afford things like childcare.
I think people are sometimes shy to talk about labor organizing in the nonprofit space. I think it’s critically important that we are talking about it in the nonprofit space because the workers that are doing this work need support.
What is the role of unions in the fight against oppression? For example, the violent attacks on reproductive rights, on trans rights, on queer folks — where do you see unions’ place in those movements?
I think they go completely hand in hand. The people that are fighting for these rights — if they’re not being supported and if they do not have the basic labor protections, they are not going to have the tools that they need to do this critically important work. From an equity standpoint, whenever there are unfair labor practices, [they] always disproportionately affect queer people, people of color, all of the people whose voices are the most important to be centered right now.
People who are in unions are paid more than their non-unionized counterparts, [so] the wage gaps are much smaller in union contexts than non-union contexts. So this is how we build this movement to make sure we’re centering the people whose voices are so, so critical to be centered right now, because that’s how we build solidarity and support, and networks to lift one another up and address the gaps in access to things like higher wages and healthcare and all kinds of benefits that have historically been limited to [only] the people who have the most power.
I think that in terms of the reproductive justice movement and all of the progressive organizations that are fighting for human rights, labor protections are one way to make sure that we’re building a movement that centers the people whose voices have historically not been centered in these movements, but that absolutely need to be centered right now.
What can people do to support you, and what are some steps that the union is taking now?
So there are a couple of things people can do. We have an Action Network petition that people can sign to reinstate me to my job. I’ve set up a Gofundme to help pay my rent and living expenses, however, if the campaign is successful and I get my job back, all that money will be donated back to abortion funds. People can also just directly donate to an abortion fund, that’s always a good thing to do, and helps ensure that the workers providing abortions are able to provide that care.
The union has filed a total of two unfair labor practices — each with multiple charges including dismissal and retaliation for union activity.
Is there anything else you want to say about what happened to you or the unionization process as a whole? Or what’s going on nationally?
I would just reiterate the point that labor rights are reproductive rights, and it’s so important that the workers who are producing this incredible research that is keeping us all informed during these really scary times have basic rights and a say in their working conditions.
Also, I would like my job back. Please give me my job back and stop union busting! I just want to make sure that nothing like what happened to me happens to anyone else at Guttmacher or elsewhere.