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Juicing Up the Labor Movement? – Try Speaking to “Women’s Issues”


To be published by In These Times

On December 11 Michigan passed two right-to-work laws, one for public and one for private employees. As even our president said, they mean right to work for lower wages. These laws do not make workers free to reject joining a union; they already have that right. They abolish the requirement that those who don't join a union pay the equivalent of union dues, a requirement designed to prevent "free riders" –  workers who benefit from union contracts without paying their fair share. Three days later the same lame-duck legislature passed the most extreme anti-abortion laws in the nation. These laws define as abortion even the removal of a "fetus that has died as a result of natural causes, accidental trauma, or a criminal assault on the pregnant woman." The laws prohibit any private or public insurance from covering abortion; charge physicians performing abortion with the responsibility of seeing that any piece of human tissue receive the burial due to a deceased person; put the burden on the physician to prove that the abortion patient was not coerced. Perhaps worst, the laws place many arbitrary requirements on clinics, none of them health related, and would force most of the state's women's clinics to close.

This coincidence of anti-labor and anti-abortion legislation is not a coincidence. They are part of the same right-wing agenda. If progressives are to build successful resistance to that agenda, our own agenda needs to include both labor and reproductive rights.

But unions and other supporters of labor have ignored reproductive rights. Some of this hands-off position came from deference to Catholics, but if that was once reasonable, it no longer is. Over 95 percent of Catholics use contraception in defiance of the church's teaching and plenty of Catholics have abortions. Another reason for ignoring reproductive rights was the traditional maleness of unions, also no longer the case.

But the worst problem has been defining reproductive rights as a "women's issue" and a feminist demand, which evokes the old labor and Left view that feminism is a movement of elites. That's wrong too: if you ask women not about the label "feminism," but about the issues that make up a feminist program –  such as equal pay, equal job opportunity, affordable day care, shared housework, an end to violence against women, and reproductive rights –  it turns out that working-class and poor women are the most feminist.

In fact, the Republican "war on women" is not just targeting women, any more than the war on labor is targeting only men. All middle- and working-class people, and especially the poor, benefit from a strong labor movement -it's our best bulwark against a race to the wage bottom. In parallel, being able to control how many children to have and when to have them is something men as well as women need. Access to birth control has become a necessity of modern life, and this is the opinion of the majority of Americans of all groups, including African Americans, Latino Americans, and Muslim Americans.

The great majority of abortion decisions are made jointly by the men and women responsible for the pregnancy. The great majority of abortion decisions rest on economic considerations: we can't afford a child, or another child; we can't survive on one income; child care is too expensive for us; it would be better to finish high school, or college, or graduate school first; it's too soon after the previous birth; I can no longer rely on my mother or sister or grandmother for help.

In other words, anti-abortion laws amount to class legislation, even if not all their proponents realize that. As in the past, during the century when abortion was made illegal, the well-to-do always found ways to obtain abortions through paying private physicians or traveling to countries more realistic about sex and the economy. It's working-class and middle-class people and the young who depend on the clinics that the Michigan law will close. One-quarter of all poor women who get birth control get it at one of these family planning clinics and for many, they are the first entry point into any adult health care. At most clinics, initial visits are free and fees for further services depend on income – for the poor, typically $20. The majority of clinics provide women with postpartum and prenatal care, well-baby care, immunizations, and physical exams.  More than 40 percent provide primary health care and many also provide genetic screening, mammograms, infertility counseling and mental health care. These clinics are usually the only source of reproductive health care for the most marginalized groups: drug abusers, prison inmates, the disabled and the homeless. And they often serve men as well as women, providing HIV testing and referrals, safe sex instruction, and prostate and testicular cancer screening.

Other abortion decisions are made by teenagers who don't have access to contraception, or whose partners pressure them into sex and won't use condoms, or who think that using
contraception makes them "sluts."  These are the women who are least well prepared to be parents at the time.

The best way to reduce abortions is of course to make contraception easily accessible and free. (Although most anti-abortion advocates also oppose these measures.) But accidents happen; contraception is not flawless. And neither are people. Sex is an unruly force. That's why, as all teenagers know, abstinence education doesn't work.

But there's an immediate political consideration too: however misnamed, the "war on women" angered and mobilized women across class lines. The Republican attacks elicited an outpouring of money and support for Planned Parenthood; when the Komen breast-cancer foundation tried to cut off support for Planned Parenthood, it was forced to take back its threat within days. This resistance represents a growing awareness of the dangers of the right-wing agenda. Pro-choice people tend to be progressive on many other issues too, including domestic spending and foreign policy. But not all understand fully how destroying labor unions pushes everyone's standard of living downward.

Here in Wisconsin the massive uprising against the Scott Walker/ALEC agenda in 2011 was probably majority female. Then in his victorious election campaign, Walker appealed explicitly to his base of white men, talking up hunting, guns, and projecting a combative, aggressive image, while the anti-Walker campaign noticeably neglected raising any of the "women's issues."  Instead, the anti-Walker forces should have prioritized the connections between his anti-union and anti-women's rights agenda. Union forces simply can't afford to write off "women's issues" as outside their concern. Building an alliance between feminist groups and the labor movement should be a high priority.

[Linda Gordon was born in Chicago but considers Portland, Oregon, her home town. She went to college at Swarthmore, then received her Ph.D. from Yale in Russian History in 1970. She became one of a pioneering generation of historians of the US examining women and gender. An active participant in the women's-liberation movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, she and her long-time collaborator Rosalyn Baxandall edited two books providing crucial views of that movement's contributions: America's Working Women (Random House/Vintage 1976 and 1995) and Dear Sisters: Dispatches from Women's Liberation (Basic Books, 1995).

She is a professor of history at NYU, teaching courses on gender, social movements, imperialism and the 20th-century US in general. She has won many prestigious awards, including Guggenheim, NEH, ACLS, Radcliffe Institute and the New York Public Library's Cullman Center fellowships.

Her first book, Woman's Body, Woman's Right: The History of Birth Control in America (Viking/Penguin, 1976), published in 1976 and reissued in 1990, remains the definitive history of birth-control politics in the US. It was completely revised and re-published as The Moral Property of Women in 2002.]

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