Labor Is Backing Abortion Rights
California’s leading union organization, bucking organized labor’s long-standing neutrality on the issue of abortion, is for the first time taking a strong stand in favor of abortion rights.
Meeting behind closed doors last month, the California Labor Federation -- which represents more than 2.1 million workers belonging to more than 1,100 affiliated unions -- voted to oppose Proposition 85, a November ballot initiative that would require doctors to notify parents before performing abortions on minors. In a policy statement, the labor federation also urged the national AFL-CIO “to reconsider its position of neutrality on the issue.”
Union leaders say polling shows that a majority of their members support abortion rights, but major labor organizations generally have avoided taking stances that would turn off those members with strong moral objections to abortion.
The most recent written version of the national AFL-CIO policy, adopted in 1990, says that though union members “resent and resist government intrusion into matters that are essentially private,” the AFL-CIO yields on the subject of abortion “to the good and sound judgment of union members.... Sincere and dedicated trade unionists can be found on both sides of these issues.”
Albin Rhomberg, one of the organizers of the Yes on 85 campaign, denounced the California federation’s vote and suggested that the unions were out of step with their members on parental notification.
“I don’t think the vote represents union members,” Rhomberg said.
AFL-CIO officials in Washington said they were unaware of any other labor federation in the country that had taken a position like California’s.
Academics who study labor called the California federation’s move potentially precedent-setting and noted that in the past the state’s unions have been early advocates for national change, most recently in the push to make the labor movement more open to immigrants.
“Most Americans are pro-choice, and taking this step ... is a pretty major and bold statement that they want to take a leadership role in changing the debate around the right to choose,” said Peter Dreier, director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College and a close observer of California’s labor movement.
“As unions become weaker, as traditional allies fall away, unions can rely increasingly on the liberal left and the radical left,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a leading scholar of labor history at UC Santa Barbara. “Abortion rights are key issues for American liberals, and these are their allies.”
In unions as in politics, major changes in policy are often carefully vetted and poll-tested, but this shift came unexpectedly as delegates to the biennial convention of the federation in Los Angeles discussed what stance to take on a half-dozen resolutions offered by local labor councils on subjects such as healthcare legislation, the Mexican elections and initiatives on California’s fall ballot.
In 2005, labor took no position on Proposition 73, a parental notification initiative similar to this November’s Proposition 85. Proposition 73 was narrowly defeated, with 53% of Californians voting no and 47% yes.
At the time, several leaders of the federation, many of them women, expressed frustration that labor had not come out in opposition to 73.
“That anger created a lot of internal debate,” said Bill Camp, executive secretary of the Sacramento Central Labor Council.
It appeared at first that the California federation would again remain neutral after its executive council voted 13-11 to take no position on Proposition 85. But the federation has changed in recent years, with women taking more leading roles (both the president of the federation and the leader of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor are women).
In addition, healthcare unions, which support abortion rights, have become more assertive. Some of these constituencies worked behind the scenes to override the executive council’s vote.
Among those who advocated opposing the initiative was Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers and a Roman Catholic. She pointedly told federation leaders that “I am a mother of 11 children -- by choice.” Huerta also persuaded the Feminist Majority Foundation -- a national nonprofit group that is strongly in favor of abortion rights -- to dispatch a dozen interns to distribute leaflets at the hotel where the union convention took place.
When the issue came up at a meeting of convention delegates, dozens of people lined up to speak. Sentiment was so strongly in favor of coming out against Proposition 85 that federation leaders cut off debate and called for a voice vote, according to accounts from a dozen union members in attendance at the session. The voice vote was overwhelming, they said, and the executive council’s decision was overturned.
Despite the vote, some unions in the federation -- including those representing janitors and workers in the building trades -- said they would remain neutral on the issue.
“We take positions only on things that directly affect working people,” said Bob Balgenorth, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California. “We don’t intrude into their personal lives.”
Balgenorth was not at the convention, but some of the unions his council represents voted against taking a stance.
The resolution against Proposition 85 was introduced by labor councils in San Francisco and San Mateo. Shelley Kessler, executive secretary-treasurer of the San Mateo County Labor Council, acknowledged that the decision “may create some tensions” but said it was important for the federation to take a stand.
“We want to be very thoughtful about getting engaged to the detriment of the overall labor movement, but this was bait,” she said of Proposition 85. “We cannot allow attacks on human civil rights, regardless of whether the people are in unions or not, to go unchallenged.”
Some union leaders and rank-and-file members downplayed the significance of the vote.
Chloe Osmer, a labor federation spokeswoman, said a majority of Californians had agreed with the federation’s position by voting down Proposition 73 in the special election.
“It’s not radical,” Osmer said. “It’s coming on the heels of voters.”
Even strong opponents of abortion rights said the federation’s action would have little effect.
Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which has worked with labor leaders on organizing and immigrant rights, called the vote “disappointing” but added: “It would be unrealistic to expect every group to believe the same way we do about every issue. It doesn’t preclude us from working together on those areas where we do share common concerns.”
Some rank-and-file union members who oppose abortion said they were conservatives and accustomed to being out of step politically with their unions. Others said they respected the democratic votes of their unions, even though they would have preferred that their labor representatives stayed neutral on the issue.
“Because I am in the workforce and I’m represented by a union, I have to respect their position,” says Bob Kiehne, a Sacramento city fire captain who opposes abortion and is active in a fellowship of Christian firefighters. At the same time, he said of the abortion issue: “Because the subject is based a lot on religious belief, it’s better for the union to remain neutral than to say pro-choice or pro-life.”