Organized Labor to Women: “You’re on Your Own in Reproductive Rights Struggle”


“You will never solve the problem until you let in the women.”
“Women win all strikes!”
— Mother Jones

Mary Harris (Mother) Jones predicted over 100 years ago that, if organized labor didn’t embrace gender equality within the unions and in society in general, the problems faced by labor would not be resolved. But organized labor has yet to heed Jones’ insightful advice. And labor’s refusal to oppose Proposition 73 — the “parental notification” initiative on California’s recent “special election” ballot — is a prime example of labor’s refusal to “walk the walk,” not just “talk the talk,” on gender equity issues.

Proposition 73 — the first attempt to chip away reproductive rights in California — sought to amend the State Constitution to require that at least one parent of a pregnant minor be notified 48 hours prior to their daughter having an abortion. (No one denies that communication is the foundation for good parent-child relationships. But girls already in abusive family situations face additional dangers under notification/consent laws.) Proposition 73, as well as the other seven ballot measures, went down in defeat. Enough voters saw through what was perhaps its most insidious aspect: constitutionally defining a zygote (fertilized egg), embryo, or fetus as a “child,” creating a dangerous precedent for future abortion rights challenges in California and elsewhere. And enough voters also saw Proposition 73 as a strategy for religious conservatives to launch future full-blown attacks on reproductive rights and as “carrot” to draw conservatives to the polls, in hopes they would also vote “yes” on the anti-union/anti-worker measures. Additionally, efforts by out-of-state evangelicals and conservative churches nationwide to impose their oppressive brand of ideology in an overwhelmingly pro-choice state created a backlash against 73.

Women — especially the 65,000-member California Nurses Association (CNA) and their chief executive, Rose Ann DeMoro — are credited for being the initial and sustaining force behind defeating Governor Schwarzenegger’s anti-worker ballot initiatives. From the onset of his attacks against nurses and other organized professions (e.g., firefighters, government workers, teachers, and other public employees), the predominately female CNA mounted organized rallies and protests at the governor’s speaking and fundraising events in California and other states. Lou Paulson, President, California Professional Firefighters, said: “Rose Ann and the nurses showed us that the emperor had no clothes” (qtd. in Kathleen Sharp, “The Woman Behind Arnold’s Defeat,” AlterNet, 10 November 2005).

But when it came to protecting the most vulnerable in the struggle for reproductive rights, the overwhelmingly male leadership of organized labor stood on the sidelines. They refused to officially oppose Proposition 73, despite the fact that — among other things — it would have established unequal protection under the law. (The 14th Amendment of the US Constitution states, “nor shall any state . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” No age limits apply.) It isn’t illegal for minors to have abortions, but those unable to face “parental notification” or petition a judge through a complicated process would be forced to seek “back-alley” abortions or carry an unwanted pregnancy to term (forced motherhood).

Prominent Democrats who accepted leadership positions with the Alliance for a Better California (coalition of unions organized around opposing Governor Schwarzenegger’s anti-union/worker ballot initiatives), declared Proposition 73 too “divisive” for certain Alliance members — such as the prison guards union — to agree upon an “oppose” position. Although some expressed frustrations about labor “missing the boat” on women’s issues that matter to Democrats, in the end, they agreed to join and represent the Alliance.

Women, already wary about the Democratic Party’s reliability and trustworthiness on the issue of choice, are now faced with additional doubts created by Democratic leaders to participate in an alliance that turned their back on this nation’s most recent reproductive rights struggle. This betrayal by Democrats says: We’re with you only when it’s convenient . . . when we want your votes, time, or money. Democrats truly loyal to their party’s official pro-choice position could have easily insisted that the Alliance for a Better California adopt an “oppose: position on Proposition 73, and told Alliance members not willing to stand up for women’s rights to find another venue for fighting Schwarzenegger’s anti-worker initiatives. But many Democrats chose instead to compromise on a bottom line issue in order to gain favor with unions like the prison guards, comprised of members whose views are largely conservative.

What other civil rights issues are too controversial for labor? In 2000, Proposition 22 — the marriage amendment to ban same-sex marriage in California — was considered by labor to be too controversial. The unions refused to take a position in favor of expanding civil rights, claiming it wasn’t a labor issue. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Today, it’s denying civil rights to teenage females and lesbians and gays; tomorrow, it’s someone else’s rights that will be up for grabs.

Labor’s refusal to oppose Proposition 73 raises many questions: What can females now expect from organized labor now that labor has shown a willingness to “jump ship” on one of their bottom line issues? And perhaps more importantly, what can labor expect in return from females — who they desperately need in order to survive? And one must ask: Does labor’s refusal to oppose Proposition 73 reflect the lack of gender equality within the unions? These are questions labor must face and resolve, or they will face further demise.

The fallout from labor’s betrayal of women has sounded alarms nationally and globally because it represents a prime example of labor’s refusal to “walk the walk” — not just “talk the talk” on gender equity issues and renders females more vulnerable to future attacks on reproductive rights. Ballot initiatives similar to those that anti-union, anti-choice forces attempted to impose on Californians will no doubt surface in other states. And labor, women, and others struggling for civil and economic rights need to demonstrate solidarity against common adversaries.

Dorothy L. Wake, author of Mother Jones, Revolutionary Leader of Labor and Social Reform (available at Xlibris or other online or local bookstores), holds a master’s degree in Government. She is a Sacramento, CA, writer, poet, and past Co-Editor for Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive newspaper. She may be contacted at <>.