Pro-union, pro-choice: Workers unionize at Planned Parenthood

Planned Parenthood workers celebrate after voting to unionize.

Workers at Planned Parenthood of the Columbia-Willamette voted to unionize in ballots counted Aug. 10 by the National Labor Relations Board. The tally was 97 to 43 in favor of joining Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49 — a 8,500-member union headquartered in Portland that represents several thousand health care workers at Kaiser Permanente and Legacy Health Systems.

It started when a worker called Local 49 to say the group needed a union. Enough workers had signed union authorization cards a month later that Local 49 was able  on July 11 to request a government-overseen election for 160 health care and support workers at Planned Parenthood’s 11 women’s health clinics in Portland, Gresham, Bend, Salem and Vancouver.

Workers interviewed by the Labor Press spoke of a variety of motivations for wanting a union, but a common theme is a desire for a more formal voice in how the clinic is run. Wages have been frozen for three years, and employer-provided health benefits get changed significantly without any input from workers. And employee turnover at the clinics is high, workers said.

Zac Ireland, an employee at Planned Parenthood’s Northeast MLK Boulevard Clinic, said staff has turned over almost entirely in the five years he’s been there. A union contract, Ireland said, could create more job security and give employees more incentive to stay, and help make it a better place for patients.

“A lot of people don’t want this to be a trial job that you do while you’re going to nursing school. They want it be a real job.” Ireland said. “We really believe in the mission of Planned Parenthood.”

When Local 49 filed for an election, the union wrote to Planned Parenthood management asking for a meeting to discuss neutrality. Management declined. Instead, Planned Parenthood of the Columbia-Willamette hired the Barran Liebman law firm, and ran what Local 49 Political Director Felisa Hagins termed an aggressive anti-union campaign, with e-mails, meetings and a letter sent to employees.

Hagins said about a third of Planned Parenthood chapters nationwide have workers who are union-represented.

The next step will be for the two sides to meet to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement.

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