Depending on Employers for Abortion Access is a Nightmare

Sarah Lazare

Following last week’s Supreme Court ruling that struck down federal protections for abortion rights, major companies, including a number of Silicon Valley giants, publicly broadcast their intention to assist their workers in traveling out of state to obtain an abortion.

Meta, Apple, Disney, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Condé Nast were among them, the New York Times noted, joining companies that had made similar pledges in May, when a leaked memo revealed that the Court would overturn Roe v. Wade. These companies include Reddit, Tesla, Microsoft, Starbucks, Yelp, Airbnb, Netflix, Patagonia, DoorDash, JP Morgan Chase, Levi Strauss & Co. and PayPal, the Times reports.

Meanwhile, Google pledged to allow workers to apply to relocate “without justification” if they live in states that do not allow abortion. Uber reiterated that its “insurance plans in the U.S. already cover a range of reproductive health benefits, including pregnancy termination and travel expenses to access healthcare.”

On its face, these gestures by employers may seem like a good thing.

But this response opens up another door to hell: The reality that workers will be even more reliant on capricious and self-interested employers to provide basic, necessary healthcare, handing bosses even more power, while giving workers one more thing to fight tooth and nail to protect.

The Problems with Employment Health Care

Let’s look at how this approach has worked out for general health coverage.

In a country that, unlike other industrialized nations, does not provide free and universal healthcare to its people, individuals rely on employers for this vital good. This means that a worker’s boss has control over their ability to get emergency heart surgery without going bankrupt, to pay for a child’s leukemia treatment, to get preventative healthcare to ward off serious complications, to afford insulin in order to not die from diabetes, etc.

Routine, day-to-day matters — like asking for time off, or asking a boss not to sexually harass you, or even banding together with your coworkers to organize a union — have higher stakes under this system. If you lose your job, you lose your healthcare. And if this healthcare is extended to your dependents and spouse, so does your family.

And what of other, more-difficult-to-quantify matters, like personal happiness and fulfillment at work? According to a May 2021 survey from West Health and Gallup, one out of six adults who receives employer-provided healthcare is staying in a job they don’t want because they’re afraid of losing these benefits.

In a capitalist society, work is how we spend our lives. Squandering our one precious life in an unwanted job is a tragic waste.

Unions Can Protect Workers’ Health

Of course, the best way to protect one’s health benefits, short of winning universal healthcare, is to organize a union.

Union workers are significantly more likely than their non-union counterparts to have health benefits at all. But imagine all the things workers could win if they didn’t have to spend their time at the bargaining table negotiating over their members’ ability to survive. If healthcare were off the table, because it was already provided by the government, maybe we would have stronger common good wins, or clauses protecting the right to strike under any circumstance, or 30-hour work weeks.

Now, apply this principle to the realm of abortion.

To think of having to add protection of one’s ability to get an abortion to the list of things employers provide, and can therefore take away, is terrifying. Some of the companies that publicly claim they will protect abortion rights are among the most viciously anti-union employers of our time.

There are Employers who Leverage Employees’ Health Against Them

How will they use this new form of leverage to crack down on workers’ rights to demand better conditions?

We are already seeing an example in Starbucks, which has said that it can’t “make promises” that any benefits for workers in need of abortions will be guaranteed for unionized shops, though they are currently provided.

Other companies making such pledges have pursued astoundingly anti-worker policies, like Uber, which is currently fighting against classifying its workers as employees, a move that would give workers access to key benefits, like the right to form a union and access to workers’ compensation.

Do we really think that a company that doesn’t want its workers to have basic rights is truly committed to ensuring they’re able to receive abortions when they need one?

Abortion travel funding shouldn’t have to be a chip on the bargaining table. But this is the terrain that unions must fight on. And they are, right now, some of their members’ best protection.

There are a host of other things unions could be doing to protect union members. Dr. Rebecca Givan, a labor law expert, has suggested creative solutions, including using union release time, to help people get abortions, drive them there, or provide childcare.

Unions should absolutely be thinking along these lines. Any step that could put abortion protections in the hands of workers, rather than their bosses, is a good thing.

Attacking Abortion Rights is Attacking Workers’ Rights

But let’s be clear-eyed about what the attack on abortion rights does.

Suddenly stealing a fundamental right to bodily autonomy helps place workers in a lower social class. It strips away workplace leverage — to give people who need abortions one more thing they have to beg their bosses for. One more thing to protect in a society where the safety net is already thin, and working-class people face rising prices and a potential looming recession. One more reason employers can claim benevolence as they crush union drives.

We can’t only rely on the bargaining table to win back the societal rights we have lost. It’s time for the resurgent labor movement to organize like hell to say that this attack on self-determination and humanity is unacceptable, and will not be tolerated — in the workplace and beyond.

This is a shortened version of a blog that originally appeared in full at In These Times on June 27, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Sarah Lazare is a web editor and reporter for In These Times.

Visit Workplace Fairness’ page on unions to learn about them and your rights as an employee.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa es estudiante de tercer año en la Facultad de Derecho de la Universidad de Siracusa. Se licenció en Periodismo en Penn State. Con su investigación jurídica y la redacción de Workplace Fairness, se esfuerza por dotar a las personas de la información que necesitan para ser su mejor defensor.