At the end of January, WESA reported that 35 full and part-time staff members working at the organization's seven health centers filed a petition to hold a unionization vote. Now the group will hold a mail-in ballot election, with ballots being sent out on Thu., February 18, according to organizing member and PPWP health care assistant, Crystal Grabowski. Those ballots must be returned by Thu., March 11 to be counted.
The group includes health care assistants, clinicians, several registered nurses, and a variety of specialists, as well as a physician’s assistant, who represent PPWP offices in Pittsburgh and throughout the region. They presented a list of demands ranging from “better wages, benefits, and working conditions; improved staffing levels and staff to patient ratio; a voice on the job and improved communication; a grievance procedure and union representation; and prioritization of the health, safety, and wellness of staff.”
Grabowski says she and her co-workers started discussing a union in summer 2019 and decided to forge ahead when certain issues became heightened by the threat of COVID-19.
“The pandemic absolutely influenced us,” says Grabowski. “Conversations had been occurring for months, but everything began to happen much more quickly once the pandemic escalated. More and more staff began talking about a union and those conversations spread further than they had before. The whole experience was so new, and scary, and different that everyone had ideas and input to bring to the table regarding what it meant to provide healthcare and do outreach during a global pandemic. We wanted to be heard, too. Everyone really banded together.”
She says there was "a lot of interest and support in a union at PPWP," confirming that 80% of workers who are eligible to vote submitted “interest cards” indicating their desire to hold a unionization vote.
Grabowski says union efforts across the city, including at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and among Google contract workers, as well as at the Persad Center, a nonprofit that offers services similar to PPWP, have been encouraging, She says PPWP runs several family planning clinics, an abortion services clinic, an Education Department, and a Marketing/Development Department. In addition, the organization offers newer programs for mental health therapy, STI testing and prevention, and hormone therapy for trans and non-binary patients.
If PPWP workers decide to unionize, they would join the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union.
The group's efforts point to internal strife that has plagued the major reproductive health care provider in recent years. This became widely apparent when, in August 2020, Buzzfeed News reported alleged instances of racism, transphobia, and general exclusionary practices by the predominantly white leadership at Planned Parenthood affiliates throughout the country. This included PPWP CEO Kim Evert, who was accused of ignoring calls to make the organization more inclusive.
Evert later responded with a statement saying the organization would stand with staff and that PPWP was “committed to directly addressing our own internal and structural racism and confirming our commitment to end implicit bias and structural racism within our organization.”
Then in December 2020, Emily Callen resigned as executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates after an official letter called for her to step down, alleging that she had been “fiscally irresponsible, used racist, transphobic, classist language, and language which perpetuates stigma against abortion.” Employees also reported a lack of communication from Callen, who announced a sudden restructuring plan in the middle of the pandemic, leaving many employees wondering if they would still have jobs.
While PPPA serves as the advocacy and political wing of the organization, many believe its issues mirror problems on the clinical side. Pittsburgh City Paper spoke with several sources at PPPA alleging that the organization has been slow to adopt LGBTQ-inclusive health care, and that “anyone who is above a clinic level nurse is more often than not an older white women.”
Grabowski agrees that, like PPPA, PPWP leadership has shut out voices essential to helping the organization evolve and better represent the community, something that unionizing could help to solve.
“There seems to be a gap between upper management and the rest of the staff across the organization,” says Grabowski. “This gap is a communication gap, but also a generational and racial one — there are many decades of experience between upper management and rank and file staff, and few who fall in between that stay. This sort of structure and dynamic — one that doesn’t look to the future, that doesn’t connect people from different backgrounds, and doesn’t act on diverse staff being vital to the future of the organization — is going to drive people out and leave people feeling as if they don’t have a voice.”