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Unions Need to Be On the Frontlines of the Struggle for Abortion Rights

The right to an abortion is under attack. That right is a crucial one for the working class. So why have our union leaders been so quiet?

Jason Koslowski

December 13, 2021
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Marchers holding signs that read "keep abortion legal"

Abortion rights are being gutted. After decades of attacks from the Right, chipping away at abortion access, nine unelected people are poised to hollow out the right to an abortion even more.

Access to an abortion is a key democratic right, especially for the working class. But our union leaders have, overwhelmingly, refused to take up the fight. Why?

The answer lies in a disastrous strategy they’ve been using for decades. Instead of trying to build fighting unions, they’ve mostly chosen to appeal to the Democratic Party, helping to get Democrats elected in the hopes of getting better laws. Now that we are probably on the eve of a historic rollback of the right to an abortion, we can see where that strategy has gotten us.

Despite what Jacobin has been printing, it will take quite a bit more than vague calls for “energy” or completely abstract “solidarity.” It will take, for example, concrete fights at work to squeeze the thing that the ruling class cares about most: profits. And our unions stand at key choke points in the economy to do just that.

But driving our unions to take action to protect abortion — to strike and otherwise disrupt the flow of profits — will take rank-and-file organizing from below. The time for that organizing is now.

A Working-Class Issue

The attack on the right to an abortion is an attack on the working class.

For their most basic power and freedom, workers must be able to decide when or whether to have kids. One major reason for this is that childbirth is so expensive. A vaginal delivery without complications runs up a bill of $10,000. More complicated deliveries cost far more. Of course, that bill lands heaviest on those people — like many in the working class — who have inadequate or no insurance. And the cost doesn’t account for many workers’ lack of paid time off.

If and when a handful of unelected, mostly millionaire judges gut Roe v. Wade, more than half of states will likely outlaw abortion. If that occurs, getting an abortion will mean traveling hundreds of miles — something that millions of workers have neither time nor money for.

The union movement badly needs to join this fight.

Unions have been on the back foot for decades, retreating under the blows of the bosses and the state. The numbers alone paint a grim picture: union membership has dwindled to just 10.8 percent nationally — and just 6.3 percent in the private sector. This is a result of the assault of the neoliberal era, with the decimation of public sector unions, the mass precarization of work, and the stripping back of worker protections.

But unions are on the back foot because of the disastrous strategy of union leaders too. For decades, the strategy has looked like this: discipline the rank and file to fall in line with leaders and corral the union movement behind the Democratic Party. Then, instead of focusing on winning major concessions through disruptive workplace actions like strikes — ask Democrats for better laws.

This strategy undermined unions’ ability to fight, even as the hammer blows of Reagan and neoliberalism were starting to falling in the early 1980s. The ruling class has been so successful in attacking unions not only because the economic tides turned against the working class — like the major recession fo the 1970s — but also because of the inner weakness of unions themselves.

For unions to rebuild themselves today, joining the fight for abortion rights is key. It’s a way of showing to the wider working class the value of unions in the first place: as tools that can and will struggle for the most basic protections of workers, especially the low-wage workers most affected by abortion restrictions.

If abortion is a key issue for workers everywhere, where are our union leaders?

Our Union Leaders Are Failing Us

The biggest union federation in the U.S. — the AFL-CIO — has chosen to duck the issue completely.

In 1990 it refused to take a stance on abortion. In 2012 it passed a resolution on “contraceptive equity” that never mentioned the word abortion. And now that abortion rights are on the chopping block — nothing.

For their part, the National Education Association (NEA) — the biggest union in the U.S. with some 3 million members — issued a statement that it “vigorously opposes all attacks on the right to choose and stands on the fundamental right to abortion under Roe v. Wade” — one of the strongest such statements from a union in the U.S.

But those words haven’t translated into a call for marches, walkouts, and strikes to turn up the heat on the abortion struggle.

In 2019 six unions — the American Federation of Teachers, Boston Teachers Union, Massachusetts Nurses Association, an SEIU local, and others — advocated for Massachusetts’ ROE Act “to protect and expand abortion access” in the state. The measure never passed. The fight for abortion rights didn’t move far beyond this push for legislation — despite the fact that unions’ real leverage isn’t in state houses; it’s in our work, and our ability to refuse to work.

SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana (HCII) went further. On October 2, it organized workers for a “rally for abortion justice” in several states — showcasing some of the power of organized labor. This has been far from the norm.

Above all, what’s glaringly missing from organized labor has been a fight for abortion rights that uses our own, main, and obvious weapons as workers, like the strike.

So why have our leaders mostly stood on the sidelines during one of the most important fights facing the working class in our lifetime? A key reason is that same, failing strategy: our leaders focus on influencing Democrats instead of building fighting unions bent on winning concessions from the rulers.

Time and again, the Democrats prove they’re not our allies.

When Democrats had a supermajority under Obama, they refused to pass pro-abortion legislation. Bernie Sanders campaigned for an anti-abortion Democrat. Now that Democrats control the White House and both wings of Congress, their solution is just to vote for Democrats. Relying on them has one main effect on unions: it demobilizes and weakens us, at exactly the time we need more mobilizing and more fighting.

Our Power Lies with the Rank and File

It will take real leverage to win what we need: free, legal, safe abortions on demand.

Unions hold a major part of that leverage. We stand at key choke points of the economy — in industries like transportation, education, and healthcare. But our union leaders have shown us, time and again, they don’t take the fight seriously.

The initiative will have to come from below: the rank and file ourselves. That is, it will take organizing from ordinary union members inside their unions to force our union leadership to take real action — when we organize for wildcat disruptions at work for the sake of abortion rights; when we reach across our unions to build rank-and-file coalitions for taking broader action into our own hands; and when we help build venues to meet and discuss next steps with the rank and file of social movements, too.

The fight for abortion rights is one of the most important to face workers in our lifetime. To win the fight for abortion, we have to attack the thing the ruling class loves most: profits. It’s time to rise to the task and make our unions throw their full weight into the fight.

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Jason Koslowski

Jason is a contingent college teacher and union organizer who lives in Philadelphia.

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