As the country braces for a Supreme Court decision that could overturn Roe v. Wade, journalism unions are trying to secure abortion access for their members through their health care plans.
The three largest unions representing journalists — the NewsGuild; the Writers Guild of America, East; and SAG-AFTRA — have all released statements condemning a leaked draft of a Supreme Court majority opinion that seems poised to overturn the landmark Roe case, which made access to abortion a constitutional right. Members and units within those unions are working to add provisions to their contracts that would ensure their health insurance covers abortion care.
Vox Media Union — which is part of the Writers Guild and represents roughly 360 journalists at Vox.com, Eater, Polygon, SB Nation, The Verge, Vox Media Studios and Vox Media Podcast Network — has already submitted such a proposal. The union was in the middle of negotiations for its second contract when news about the leaked draft broke. Though the employees’ health insurance plan already includes some coverage for abortion, the union wanted to “enshrine” that right in their contract, said bargaining committee member Amy McCarthy.
“Without something in a collective bargaining agreement, the company can kind of decide unilaterally to just rescind that benefit,” McCarthy said. “Considering how this could go when Roe is overturned, we wanted to get that language in there for sure.”
Vox Media is based in Washington, D.C., which legalized abortion at all stages of pregnancy in 1971, but the union has members across the country, including states where abortion will likely be outlawed if Roe v. Wade is overturned. To protect those members, the union also proposed language asking Vox to provide financial support to employees who must travel to receive an abortion.
“I live in Texas, which is a state that will almost assuredly ban abortion without Roe in place,” McCarthy said. “It’s very scary to think about what that future looks like where I potentially have to pay several thousands of dollars to travel and take time off work and recover in a strange place because of the way that the law shakes out.”
At least 19 states have “trigger” laws or pre-Roe laws that would make abortion illegal if the Supreme Court decides to overturn its precedent. The court will likely issue its ruling later this month or early next month, but some states are already passing additional legislation restricting abortion. In late May, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill that bans abortions beginning at conception.
NewsGuild president Jon Schleuss said he has already heard from unions in Texas and Missouri who are interested in adding abortion access protections to their contracts. Unions at national outlets with members across the country have also expressed interest.
A team of NewsGuild staff and members are drafting language that bargaining committees can use during contract negotiations. Schleuss said the first step unions must take is to determine what type of health care plan they have. From there, they can bargain for changes.
Part of ensuring abortion care access is making sure that sick leave policies are flexible enough that employees can take a sick day at a moment’s notice to get an abortion, Schleuss said. The NewsGuild is also seeking to protect the privacy of members who do seek an abortion. If an employer does find out that an employee received an abortion, the union wants to make sure those employees do not face discipline or discrimination.
“So if they’re talking to colleagues and a manager overhears that they’re talking about abortion, then they wouldn’t be disciplined for that,” Schleuss said.
Shortly after the news about the leaked draft broke, some newsrooms sent their employees reminders about company social media policies. NPR, The Associated Press and The E.W. Scripps Company reminded their journalists to avoid sharing personal opinions on political issues. Axios asked its staff not to join pro- or anti-abortion marches. Gannett and The Philadelphia Inquirer issued similar messages, according to Schleuss.
“There was an initial scuttle by a handful of newsroom managers who sent out messages saying, ‘Here’s a reminder of our social media policy, and this is partisan, and you should keep opinions to yourself,’ which I think is really disturbing,” Schleuss said. “I don’t see this as a partisan issue. I think it’s been kind of turned into a partisan issue, but it’s not a partisan issue. It’s an issue of whether a human being has control over their own health care decisions with their health care provider.”
Schleuss said that journalists who want to talk about abortion access can tie it to their own health care plans, making it protected speech under the National Labor Relations Act. The law, which also covers workers who are not part of a union, protects the rights of employees to talk about working conditions, including on social media.
Tip: if you want to talk/tweet about abortion access and have it be protected [labor] speech: talk about it in the context of your healthcare benefits (which is a working condition and protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act) https://t.co/nkpj5LukQe
— Jon Schleuss (@gaufre) May 12, 2022
Though Vox.com was one of the newsrooms that sent out a reminder about sharing personal opinions, McCarthy, a staff writer at Eater, said she personally hasn’t faced issues when speaking out about any of the union’s proposals.
“I think most of our leadership understands that these are issues that affect people’s lives,” McCarthy said. “It’s only natural for you to have an opinion on something that could fundamentally impact your life.”
Vox management seemed “open” to including language about abortion access in the union’s contract, McCarthy said. The company did, however, raise concerns about states where insurers could potentially be banned from covering abortion services.
Management seemed to be checking to determine what legal issues they might face in trying to protect abortion access, McCarthy said. There is uncertainty around how anti-abortion laws will play out, especially as state legislatures continue to pass additional restrictions. McCarthy acknowledged that the initial language the union proposed — “The company will provide assistance and financial support to employees who are located in states or areas where abortion care is not readily available” — will likely change over the course of negotiations.
A number of companies outside the media industry have already pledged to help their workers access abortion care if Roe is overturned. Amazon, for example, said it would pay up to $4,000 in travel expenses for employees who cannot access medical procedures, including abortions, within 100 miles of where they live. Apple, Microsoft, Starbucks, Tesla, Yelp and other companies have made similar promises.
Vox Media Union’s current contract is set to expire June 13, and the union has threatened to strike if a deal cannot be reached. In addition to the proposal on abortion access, the union is seeking stronger benefits related to reproductive health. Those include better parental leave, access to lactation facilities and an expansion of fertility benefits.
“Ideally, we would end up with language that encompasses reproductive health care sort of generally,” McCarthy said.
Underpinning the Roe v. Wade decision and the right to an abortion is a right to privacy. A number of other rights — including marriage equality and access to contraception — also hinge on the right to privacy, and some legal experts worry they may be endangered if Roe is overturned.
The NewsGuild is watching these issues, Schleuss said. Prior to the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that legalized same-sex marriage across the country in 2015, some union contracts had clauses that allowed workers to add their domestic partners to their health care plans even if they weren’t married.
Unions may once again have to add that coverage to their contracts, along with language that protects access to birth control, Schleuss said. Some NewsGuild units are also pushing to ensure gender-affirming care is included in health care plans. Last year, 22 state legislatures introduced bills to ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth, according to the Movement Advancement Project.
“It’s a shame that it’s up to individual units or individual unions — or in some cases, individuals — to have to protect what should be an essential right for people,” McCarthy said. “But that’s the world that we live in right now.”