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Local Planned Parenthood Employees Move Toward Union Vote

Elaine Thompson
A union at Planned Parenthood for Western Pennsylvania would cover clinicians, physician assistants, registered nurses, behavioral specialists, and education and development staff.

Employees at Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania are preparing for a vote to unionize. The election has yet to be scheduled, but on Wednesday the National Labor Relations Board said workers may vote by mail due to COVID-19, Planned Parent health care assistant Crystal Grabowski said.

Workers at the organization’s seven health centers filed their petition to hold a unionization vote with the labor board last week. The filing shows that the 35 staff members eligible to participate in the election include full-time and regular part-time clinicians, physician assistants, registered nurses, behavioral specialists, and education and development staff. Their locations include offices in Bridgeville, Greensburg, Johnstown, Moon, Pittsburgh, and Somerset.

Before organizers submitted the petition, about 80 percent of employees submitted “interest cards” indicating their desire to hold a unionization vote, according to Grabowski. If the workers opt to unionize, they would join the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union.

Aside from higher pay and staffing levels, Grabowski said she and other organizers want more influence over workplace decisions.

“We're really good at what we do, and we really love what we do. So we really want to be able to have a seat at the table and a say in everything that we do,” she said.

Although talk of unionization at local Planned Parenthood offices started in the summer of 2019, Grabowski said the effort picked up steam when the pandemic forced changes at the workplace.

“There was definitely a scramble at first, and it was really stressful … to suddenly have to really develop all these new ways and safer ways of providing health care and then all of a sudden having a lot of co-workers who needed to work remotely,” Grabowski said.

“When you're building new processes and you're making changes and reacting to things like a global pandemic,” she said, “there's a lot of those conversations happening, they're happening very quickly, and communication is really important. And I think that there is just a really strong desire with a lot of staff to have more of a say and to be part of that conversation, which is something that a union can do.”

There are signs that the pandemic’s impact on workers has contributed to growing support for unions nationally.

Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania CEO Kim Evert has not taken a position on her employees’ unionization drive. Grabowski said Evert has not resisted the effort, but in a statement Thursday, the CEO noted that her organization has struggled with a loss of federal funding under a Trump Administration policy issued in 2019.

“We are proud of our staff and management team who continued to serve the community throughout this time,” Evert said, “and we will continue to provide quality services to those in our community who are underserved, as well as continue to address workplace matters raised by our employees.”

Grabowski said a politically fraught environment underscores the need for ample staffing at places like the region’s Planned Parenthood clinics. Future restrictions on abortion and family planning services in other states could force more patients to come to Pennsylvania for treatment, she said.

While such changes are not expected soon, Grabowski continued, “There's always a little bit of anxiety regarding that in the future.” And she added, “It's even trickier with COVID … because then you have to balance access and making sure everyone can get the health care that they need and that they can do it also in a safe way.”

The unionization campaign comes two months after complaints over workplace hostility prompted the resignation of the head of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, the reproductive rights group’s political arm, which operates separately from its local health care centers.

In an open letter published in November, employees of the advocacy nonprofit accused former executive director Emily Callen of being “fiscally irresponsible” and using “racist, transphobic, classist language, and language which perpetuates stigma against abortion.” The month before, an internal assessment of Planned Parenthood’s national wing found that Black employees had experienced years of unfair treatment at the nonprofit.

After the Pennsylvania employees posted their letter in November, their board of directors pledged to implement anti-racist training, revise workplace policies, and audit internal and external communications, the Pennsylvania Capital-Star reported in December. But those vows did not prevent board chair Dayle Steinberg from also stepping down days after Callen.

Grabowski said she and her colleagues at Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania were heartened by Callen’s resignation “even though it didn’t really impact” their clinical and educational services.

“We saw what the staff were doing there, and we were really inspired by that,” Grabowski said. “So I would say it did impact us in that we saw the way that they all stuck together and banded together.”