When Ashley Brink accepted a job at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains (PPRM) in April 2016, she knew it would mean taking a $3 an hour pay cut. It also entailed relocating from Wichita, Kansas, among the cheapest U.S. cities to live in, to Denver, one of the most expensive.
But Brink was passionate about Planned Parenthood’s mission. In 2013, she’d helped reopen Wichita’s sole abortion clinic, closed four years earlier following the murder of its doctor, George Tiller. After three years of working as the funding and patient coordinator for the small clinic — a job she says included everything from checking in patients to helping them secure funding to travel to Wichita for abortions — she was “ready for a new adventure” with an organization she admired.
As a traveling health center assistant for PPRM, Brink works at multiple clinics across three states. “I get to help so many different communities access healthcare,” she says. “Access is very important to me.”
So Brink was dismayed when, in May 2017, PPRM announced that it was closing six of its clinics, including one in Casper, Wyoming — Planned Parenthood’s only facility in the entire state.
That was the moment when Brink says she and many of her co-workers decided they needed a union. In December 2017, employees at 14 clinics in the metro Denver area voted to form one.
That made PPRM just the sixth local Planned Parenthood affiliate to unionize, out of more than 50 nationwide. In at least two of these cases, the local employer was accused of attempting to squelch worker organizing. But this year, PPRM went a step further when it appealed the union vote to the National Labor Relations Board, as previously reported by the Intercept. That’s left employees like Brink feeling “disheartened” as they wait for a decision that could also have broad implications for workers nationwide.
A small group of PPRM employees first began organizing in the fall of 2016. Their key issues included wages — according to the union, the median annual wage for PPRM employees is $35,000, which is at the low end of the median range for health workers given by the Bureau of Labor Statistics—high staff turnover and prohibitively high costs of adding family members to employee health insurance.
The clinic closures convinced other staff members that they needed a greater say in organizational decision-making. PPRM cited financial reasons for the move, including lower reimbursement rates for an expanding pool of patients on Medicaid. But health center workers weren’t consulted about which clinics would shutter or how their patients would be impacted, according to Brink.
“Closing rural clinics is one of the worst things we could be doing,” she says. “Patients kept asking us, ‘where am I gonna go?’ The people who made the decisions weren’t the ones who had to have those conversations.”
By August 2017, a majority of staff members in the Denver area, as well as the traveling team, had signed union cards with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 105. But Planned Parenthood CEO Vicki Cowart declined to meet with staff or grant voluntary recognition, according to the union. Over the next four months, staff members say they were subject to captive audience meetings and a flyer instructing staff to “be sure you have all the facts and vote no.” The flyer claimed, among other things, that a union would be “harmful to patients” and lead to “less flexible work hours.”
In December, Colorado employees voted 72 – 57 in favor of the union. But soon afterwards, PPRM announced that it was challenging the outcome, on the basis that the new union would exclude the organization’s further-flung clinics in Colorado, as well as those in New Mexico and Nevada.
In response to a list of questions e-mailed by In These Times, PPRM provided a statement that reads, in part
Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains values the choice of every single employee impacted by the important decision to form a union. Over the past year, SEIU Local 105 worked to organize only 14 of our 24 health centers (14 of 18 in Colorado, 0 of 4 in New Mexico, and 0 of 2 in Southern Nevada). During this time, we communicated repeatedly our belief that all workers should have their voices heard, urging SEIU to include all health center staff in any proposed bargaining unit.
Amanda Martin, a health center assistant in the organization’s Littleton, Colorado clinic, calls this argument “disingenuous.” The NLRB’s regional director initially approved a bargaining unit comprised solely of Colorado clinics because of the difficulty of organizing across state lines. But if PPRM wanted to include all of their employees in decision-making, “they don’t need the NLRB to direct them to do that,” says Martin, who is also an elected member of the staff’s union bargaining team. “They’re looking to make us start all over.”
PPRM is being represented by Fisher Phillips, a law firm that advertises “union avoidance” among its services. Forcing unions to organize larger numbers of workers, across sprawling geographic areas, isolated worksites or occupational differences, is one such “avoidance” strategy that the firm has utilized successfully in previous cases involving employers with multiple worksites. While including all workers of a given employer may make for a stronger bargaining unit, if successful, it also sets up a bar that many union organizing efforts cannot clear initially. Thus, cases concerning the appropriate make-up of union bargaining units have for years been hotly contested before the NLRB.
In December 2017, a Republican-controlled NLRB overturned a key Obama-era decision that made it easier for workers to organize so-called micro-units within a specific department or job classification. If Planned Parenthood prevails, the precedent could set up another hurdle for worker organizing within large or geographically disparate employers.
In April, Trump labor board appointees Marvin Kaplan and Bill Emanuel sided with Planned Parenthood, allowing its appeal to go forward. The case will now be heard by the full five-member board.
In her dissent to the decision, Obama board appointee Lauren McFerran cited a potential chilling effect on worker organizing. “The Employer’s sole proposed unit here was employer-wide and included its Las Vegas, Nevada facilities, which are over 700 miles distant from the Denver metropolitan area that is at the core of the directed unit,” she wrote. “In many, if not most, instances, such daunting geographic barriers could be prohibitive to employees’ right to choose and engage in collective bargaining.
Stephanie Felix-Sowy, healthcare organizing Director at SEIU Local 105, also stresses that the case could have substantial collateral damage. “If this conservative board rules against the workers, which they likely will, it could set a dangerous precedent,” she says. “A precedent that workers can only organize if they have the resources to organize an entire company and the ability to cross many state lines.”
Martin, Brink and other PPRM staff are still hoping to convince their employer to drop the appeal. They’ve received high-profile support from Colorado legislative and gubernatorial candidates, as well as current state lawmakers.
“Nobody has more skin in the game than those of us who work in the clinic,” says Martin. “We’re not organizing in a way that would be harmful for the organization. But there is a way to support both reproductive rights and labor rights, including those of the employees that work at Planned Parenthood. We don’t see these as separate things.”
Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.