Four-hundred Planned Parenthood employees across 28 Midwest clinics may soon be unionized.
The majority of Planned Parenthood North Central States (PPNCS) workers have joined SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and Iowa, filing for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board on May 26. PPNCS includes clinics across the states of Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.
The filing was announced during a virtual press conference featuring Brenda Hilbrick, SEIU Healthcare MN and IA vice president, who was joined via Zoom by four PPNCS workers from Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. They described the challenges of working during the pandemic and the bureaucratic barriers in the way of the workers being able to voice their grievances to administrators and executives.
“Across the affiliate, both clinical and administrative staff are overworked, underpaid and undervalued,” Sadie Brewer, a registered nurse at the St. Paul-Vandalia Planned Parenthood clinic in Minnesota, said during the press conference. “The executive team is constantly making decisions that affect us with little or no input from those doing the actual work. PPNCS needs a union to give its frontline workers the voice they so desperately need and the power to make improvements in our working conditions.”
April Clark of Grinnell has worked in women’s healthcare for her entire career as a registered nurse. She started in a labor and delivery unit at Mercy Hospital in Dubuque in 2007 and taught at Northeast Iowa Community College in Peosta, Iowa.
“I was brought up in a very pro-choice household,” Clark told Little Village. “I would not exist if my mother did not have access to a safe and legal abortion. That allowed her to escape a terrible, traumatic marriage. Then she got remarried and had me.”
Since Clark started working at Planned Parenthood in 2012, she has “done a little bit of everything.”
“I was a traveling abortion nurse for a long time, worked at the sites in Iowa and Nebraska; I’ve been the sedation program manager, and now I’m a training development specialist to help train new staff. I love teaching. I love that aspect of nursing. I had been a patient at Planned Parenthood. I knew they really focused on teaching people.”
There are nine Planned Parenthood clinics in Iowa. As a senior training and development specialist registered nurse serving clinics in Central and Eastern Iowa, Clark works at all but two clinics (Council Bluffs and Sioux City, which are handled by Nebraska trainers). She sees first-hand “how fast we’re going through employees” as the labor shortage in healthcare and policies impact the clinics she visits.
“I would train someone for a registered nurse position in Cedar Rapids, and six months later I would be training someone for that position again, and six months later train another person for that position,” Clark said. “We’re just not having the retention that we need. It makes it really hard on the staff that’s here when we’re constantly having high turnover levels.”
Laurel Neufeld, a medical assistant at the uptown Minneapolis Planned Parenthood clinic, told Little Village she has witnessed similar turnover rates and the strain placed on her and her coworkers up north.
“I love my job, I love my patients and I love my coworkers,” Neufeld says. “But we can do a better job providing dignified care for patients if there were some structural changes made, but when we bring these changes up to the folks in administration, change is often really slow or doesn’t happen.”
Efforts to unionize PPNCS have been underway since last summer when workers connected with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents roughly 2 million workers.
“There were a few groups who were working on unionizing, unbeknownst to each other, and the employees finally figured out that there’s more people who want to unionize,” Clark says. “We approached SEIU because they are the union reps for healthcare workers and a lot of Planned Parenthood employees. They cover a lot of different affiliates of Planned Parenthood, including some of our national offices.”
“We’ve seen a wave of non-profit union organizing across the country,” Grace Reckers, an organizer for the Office and Professional Employees International Union, told Little Village. “Non-profit employees just hadn’t seen themselves as a workforce capable of organizing for quite some time. When they saw comparable employees at other organizations successfully win unions, they realized they could do the same. I think we’ve been pushed to this limit where nonprofit workers have been exploited for so long. Nonprofit workers care about the organization or cause they work for, it’s hard to separate their work boundaries with the reason they do the job.”
The urgency of the union campaign intensified after May 2, when Politico reported that an early draft of a majority opinion from the conservative-run Supreme Court had been leaked, indicating their intention to overturn Roe v. Wade, the watershed 1973 ruling protecting the right to an abortion and patient privacy.
“I want to emphasize that abortion rights are human rights, and we are living through a very troubling moment in history where our rights are being deliberately, strategically and precisely eliminated,” Sarah Stoesz, PPNCS president and CEO, told Little Village in an email. “The draft decision throws out precedent, it throws out the foundation of our checks and balances of power. And it all rests on the intentional destruction of our democracy. Our democracy is our power, and we must be crystal clear that we must preserve our democracy in order to preserve our rights.”
Clark found out about the leak when she was settling in at home, making dinner for her children after working a long day at a clinic in Des Moines.
“We’ve been preparing for that for a long time, but it’s different to see it in print,” Clark said. “Especially the way it was worded, leaving the door to overturn other rights like gay marriage, our right to privacy as patients, interracial marriage, transgender rights. There’s a lot of other things that Roe can affect because it’s more about patient privacy than abortion.”
For years Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Republican lawmakers have campaigned on opposition to abortion care and reproductive rights in the Hawkeye State. In 2020, U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, along with former Rep. Steve King, requested that the Supreme Court justices overturn Roe v. Wade when signing a friend-of-the-court brief. Last year, Reynolds was one of 11 Republican governors who signed an amicus brief parroting that request in regards to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization abortion rights case in Mississippi.
“They have passed laws assaulting people’s right to choose in our state for a long time,” Clark said. “The state was much more pro-choice when I started, it was more blue or purple than solid red like it is now. Iowa was the first state in the entire country to offer telemedicine abortion, we pioneered that for everyone else. Now they’re trying to do everything in their power to get our right to abortion taken away.
As of now abortion is still legal in Iowa, but that will be thrown into jeopardy if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Clark recalled how her mother talked about a friend who died during a back alley abortion in the early 1970s.
“That’s why I say without safe, legal access to abortion, my mom said she would never have had that abortion if she had to get it in a back alley instead of a regular clinic,” Clark said. “She would be too scared of dying like her friend did, leaving behind little kids. I know abortion won’t stop, but safe abortion will be reduced.”
An official date from the NLRB for a mail ballot election will be announced in the near future.
“We were hoping for voluntary recognition, but we’re not going to get that,” Clark said. “They say they want to ‘follow the democratic process.’ The democratic process already happened. We have majority support when we filed to go to election. Over 60 percent of us signed union cards. We have a true majority.”