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NEW YORK — Sam Heyne, a young, newly hired HR worker, was stunned by the number of workers who were quitting and the frequent accounts she was hearing about toxic behavior from bosses.
“It became abundantly clear that there needed to be a culture change, and the only way…was to start a union,” Heyne says.
Before long, Heyne was caught up in the long-brewing organizing drive at the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, a prestigious research and advocacy arm for the reproductive rights movement.
After months of strategizing, with Heyne working on the group’s internal communications, workers won an overwhelming victory in July 2022, 63-2, to join Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153.
The celebration didn’t last long; within two hours, Heyne was fired.
The union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging retaliation. In a statement emailed to In These Times, Guttmacher spokesperson Maibe Ponet said the “personnel decision has nothing to do with the union election.”
Heyne was left angry, devastated and terrified. How would she get by and pay her student loans?
Fortunately, the union offered her a job as a part-time organizer. Then she found work at the legal advocacy organization Center for Reproductive Rights (a union shop that joined United Auto Workers Local 2110 in 2020). Heyne has also been active in a widespread and independent movement to organize and support workers in the reproductive rights and justice movement, Repro Workers.
The effort at Guttmacher continues a swell of organizing at reproductive rights centers, with demands for better pay, benefits and a workplace voice born out of the pandemic. SEIU and AFT, for example, have won recent elections at Planned Parenthood chapters with overwhelming majorities.
The Dobbs decision has only added to on-the-job pressures and career anxieties. Clinics in states with new abortion restrictions face layoffs and cutbacks, while those in other states face an influx of patients. At Guttmacher, Heyne says, bosses were not listening to employees “working these crazy 60- and 80-hour work weeks.”
Heyne adds that, “A lot of time there’s the involvement of guilt that is leveraged by the leadership, [which is] making hundreds of thousands a year [while] the workers are making little.”
Unions didn’t figure into Heyne’s world when she was growing up in Minneapolis. While earning a master’s in organizational psychology at the University of Minnesota, Mankato, however, she began thinking about worker exploitation. She left a job at a powersports company and moved to New York, hyped for Guttmacher. “They were looking for someone to improve their culture,” she says.
Heyne held focus groups for staff and encountered a raft of complaints. But response from management was mostly “devoid of empathy,” she says. “They seemed angry.”
A December 2021 article from Prism details many of these complaints and refers to a December 2020 report by consultants Guttmacher brought in, who “scored Guttmacher alarmingly low for accountability, commitment, trust and its ability to address conflict.”
As Heyne grew into her job, she heard about the organizing, but could someone in HR join? Would anyone trust her? A colleague convinced her to come aboard.
In June 2022, the workers spelled out their demands, writing:
“Arriving at the momentous decision to unionize was not spontaneous or easy; it was the only solution left to us. Despite numerous attempts to foster necessary change through the usual channels, longstanding workplace issues remained: hostile, toxic behaviors; murky promotion criteria; inequitable compensation. Worse was being shamed, ignored, and punished by senior leadership for raising and trying to address these issues. More than 30 colleagues — representing nearly a quarter of our workforce — departed in one year alone.”
A Guttmacher spokesperson tells In These Times that Guttmacher has seen “significant” change in the past five years, including a “commitment to center equity and diversify our workforce, which has started at the top. Our executive team is currently majority women of color.” They add that Guttmacher is as “determined as ever to work alongside staff in creating a positive culture where everyone feels safe and valued, and where we can continue to produce credible evidence in service of sound sexual and reproductive health, rights and justice policies.”
Guttmacher workers rejected the nonprofit’s offer to voluntarily recognize the union, balking at several stipulations, including a so-called non-disparagement clause. “We are deeply concerned that leadership’s proposed terms for agreement are silencing, unreasonable and greatly limit our power for collective action,” the workers said in the newsletter Heyne created.
For all Heyne has faced, she doesn’t regret organizing.
“For me, there has been this overhanging feeling, this constant [sense of] fear and frustration about the state of the world,” she says. “Once I started understanding organizing, I suddenly felt this newfound hope.
“Something has to give. Nobody is going to save us.”
This piece is part of a series on worker-organizers. Read more here.
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A former labor writer for the Chicago Tribune, Stephen Franklin is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Labor and Employment Relations.