Trouble in Texas: Why Labor Needs to Fight for Reproductive Rights

By Millie Phillips

There is simply no such thing as women’s rights without the right for women to control when and if we have children. Without this right, women cannot participate fully or equally in the workplace and cannot gain economic or legal equality with men. 49.5% of union members in the US are women, the highest percentage ever. When half of labor’s membership is under attack, where is the outrage, where is the organizing?

One of the worst fears of women – the reversal of the right to abortion – has now occurred in the state of Texas with the approval of the US Supreme Court. Those of us alive before 1973 remember first-hand just how terrifying it was to get pregnant when there was no right to end a pregnancy. The toll of unwanted pregnancies destroyed many women’s opportunities to finish high school, go to college, get a job or career, leave abusive relationships, or afford to raise children they already had. Even survivors of rape and incest were forced to give birth. Many women died from illegal, unsanitary “back-alley” abortions performed by unscrupulous providers, or by self-inducing abortions by such horrible means as piercing their own cervixes with coat hangers. Underground providers committed to women’s rights who were able to perform the procedure safely risked criminal prosecution in a brave effort to provide a service desperately needed, as did medical doctors who often faked paperwork to conceal abortions. Women who did not want immediately to give birth lived in constant fear of pregnancy. And, of course, lower-income women bore the brunt of this terror, since the rich could easily access safe abortion, no matter what the law stated.

How the Texas Law Changes Abortion Rights

Up until now, the Supreme Court has invalidated laws that are directly inconsistent with the 1973 decision Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion. Yet, anti-abortionists have found other ways to chip away at abortion rights to the extent that, in many parts of the US, it is already virtually impossible to access abortion. Anti-abortion tactics include terrorizing (and even murdering) abortion providers to put them out of business; harassing and threatening women seeking abortions; getting laws passed that greatly limit access without banning it altogether, such as imposing waiting periods, requiring parental consent laws for minors, allowing abortions only if performed in hospitals, and outlawing certain methods of abortion; pushing insurance companies and employers not to cover abortion costs, and using deceptive information to dissuade women from getting abortions. 12 states (Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma [becomes law this November], South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah) have passed absolute bans, written so that they will take effect only if Roe vs. Wade is overturned, which now, after this current decision, appears likely in the very near future. It is not surprising that these states are also among the most anti-union and economically depressed, where women already face more obstacles to getting union jobs at living wages.

While the Supreme Court did not use the current Texas case to overturn Roe v. Wade outright, failing to block a state law that, in practice, enacts an almost absolute abortion ban, clearly sends a message that Roe v. Wade is in imminent danger. And, the new law, by turning over enforcement to private parties through the means of civil lawsuits with large mandatory awards to successful plaintiffs, creates a class of deputized bounty hunters.

The law faces legal challenges, including from the US attorney general, both over banning abortion itself and because it allows anyone to sue an individual who helps someone get an abortion, without any need to allege harm to the person suing. This has very serious implications across the political spectrum, since a similar approach could be used to limit any other behavior or status that some group opposes. The law will probably be overturned. But, as of now, it has been allowed to go into effect, the first time an abortion ban has not been blocked since Roe v. Wade.

Why did this happen and what can we do about it?

The Role of the Democrats

For many years, Democratic Party politicians and their supporters have been telling us that the main threat to abortion is the Republican Party. The argument goes like this: Not only are Republicans far more likely to oppose abortion, if a Republican president gets elected, there is the danger of vacant seats on the Supreme Court being filled by anti-abortion judges confirmed by Republican lawmakers. Superficially, this appears to make sense. After all, Trump appointed three of the five justices who voted not to block the Texas law. The danger of life-time appointments of right-wingers to the Supreme Court has been one of the most persuasive arguments used against building third parties or supporting independent candidates to the left of the Democrats, arguing incorrectly that any vote for an independent or third-party candidate is always a vote taken away from the Democrat, thus strengthening the Republicans, the so-called “spoiler effect.” This is one reason why the Labor Fightback Network support reforms like ranked choice voting that eliminate the spoiler effect.

But a deeper question must be asked. While it is good that the Texas law is now being challenged by the US Justice Department under a Democratic Party administration, what have the Democrats done to prevent such laws from being passed in the first place? What have they done to prevent anti-abortion judges from being confirmed? What, at the federal level, have they done to pass bills protecting reproductive rights, rather than relying on a Supreme Court precedent that could be overturned by right-wing judges? Not much and not enough.

If they would end the Senate filibuster, Democrats could pass any federal law they want. They could expand the numbers on the Supreme Court and confirm only pro-choice judges. The party could refuse to endorse or campaign for any Democrat running for office unless they had a stellar record defending women’s rights. They could repeal the Hyde Amendment (which bars federal funding for abortions) and mobilize in all states to remove anti-abortion laws. Even when Democrats are not the majority in Congress or in statehouses, they could organize their constituents to take bold actions.

The same is true for union rights. In fact, this is the role of the Democrats on all issues of concern to women, union members, people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and all working class and lower-income US residents. They demobilize and co-opt social justice movements, convincing activists that nothing can be done except to keep lobbying and voting for them. They promise us things we truly need, then blame the Republicans for why none of their promises are “realistic” in the moment.

What Should Labor Do?

However, the Democrats and Republicans are not the only forces to blame. Most organizations representing women have also failed to mobilize and organize an independent mass moment to protect reproductive rights; just as the labor movement, as a whole, has failed to mobilize and organize an independent mass movement to protect workers’ rights to organize and bargain.

Even though there are nearly 8 million union women, the labor movement has never made reproductive rights a priority. In part, this has been due to a fear of taking on conservative workers in unions who oppose abortion for religious reasons and to historical sexism within labor that has yet to be fully overcome but it is also due to the same unwillingness to act independently of the Democrats. With over 16 million members, organized labor in the US remains a powerful force for any issue, should it choose to use its numerical power.

Other social movements today may be more willing to act militantly, but they can’t substitute for the lack of mass feminist movement or an independent, radical labor movement.

At this present moment, there are a myriad of life-threatening issues that demand our attention. However, they have one common denominator: the lack of a large, well-organized movement independent from the twin parties of the US ruling class. Unions should be protesting the Texas law and any other attack on abortion that follows. Unions should be helping build a unified movement that fights for all women while centering the needs, experience, and voices of the most oppressed. If you are a union member, demand that your own union do more to protect women workers.

Let’s build an independent political force – a party grounded in labor and oppressed communities – that will end such attacks once and for all.

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