Arnie Alpert is a retired activist, organizer, and community educator long involved in movements for social and economic justice. Arnie writes an occasional column Active with the Activists for InDepthNH.org.
ACTIVE WITH THE ACTIVISTS
By Arnie Alpert, for InDepthNH
MANCHESTER—The parking lot was empty and all was quiet outside Planned Parenthood’s Manchester health clinic on Saturday until just before 2 p.m. when staff members started to show up. But they weren’t showing up for a normal shift. They were showing up for a rally.
Workers at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England (PPNNE), known for providing low-cost reproductive health care, have organized a union and are in the midst of negotiating their first contract.
The union drive started in Maine and jumped to Vermont, with New Hampshire coming on board at the end. But in recent days, 18 elected staff members from all three states have been bargaining together with the agency’s management over terms of their first collective bargaining agreement. Talks hit a bump on Friday, which is why union members and friends showed up Saturday with picket signs.
“Today, bargaining teams from ME/NH/VT, along with many more who joined in support, spent a long day together, trying our best to reach an acceptable agreement with PPNNE management,” the bargaining team said Friday in a message to members. “Unfortunately, after more than 13 hours, management has not been willing to move their proposals to an acceptable place.”
The issue in contention is wages, which union members say are too low at the low end of the agency’s pay scale and rising too slowly for long-term employees.
When Katelin Smith, a Holderness resident, arrived, she quickly grabbed a blank placard and marker to make a sign that said, “I cannot afford the care I provide.” Others made signs reading, “Better Pay, Help Us Stay,” and “A Livable Wage is All the Rage.” Familiar pink “I Stand with Planned Parenthood” signs were altered to, “I Stand with Planned Parenthood Workers.”
“We believe in the mission at PPNNE and that those values should apply to our workers as well as our patients and communities,” Dana Keyes-Gibbons of the Burlington, Vermont office told me. “Our goal is to settle a fair contract that allows PPNNE to recruit and retain staff, pay a livable wage, and maintain patient access.”
Union members say their priorities are equity and inclusion in all facets of their work, transparency and collaborative decision-making, livable wages and benefits, and appropriate staffing levels that meet the needs of patients.
But wages are at the top of priorities.
Ella Kruczynska, a Concord resident whose normal job at the agency is major donor fundraising, elaborated. With the cost of living going up, the agency isn’t paying enough to its workers at the low end of the wage scale, where some staff get as little as $15 an hour. “What we really want to see is equitable wages,” she said, meaning enough so that workers don’t have to face choices between paying for essential needs like rent, groceries, and health care. With wages rising at retail and food services establishments, the union sees the need for more pay in order for the agency to attract staff. “We want competitive wages that enable staff to choose to stay at Planned Parenthood because we love to work here,” she said.
For the union, the magic number is $20 an hour as a base. That’s more than the agency’s management has been willing to offer, so far.
By way of comparison, the latest NH Housing Rental Survey says a worker would need an annual income of $65,700, or $31.59 an hour, to afford the median 2-bedroom apartment in Hillsborough County, which rents at $1,643 a month.
From the sound of it, negotiations have been relatively amicable so far, with the union and management reaching agreements on matters such as health insurance and the employer’s contribution to retirement accounts. But according to Kruczynska, wages have been “a fighting issue for a long time.”
Kruczynska and about 15 co-workers took the fight to the street on Saturday, choosing to brandish their signs on Elm Street, half a block from the clinic, where more people would see them. For an hour, with a recording of union songs playing in the background, they waved signs at cars driving by, drawing lots of supportive honks. No doubt due to plenty of experience with anti-abortion protesters, they seemed unperturbed by the one driver who got out of his vehicle and yelled at them.
Although they have a common employer, the union members chose to establish three separate bargaining units, each of which would have its own contract. But so far, they’ve been negotiating together, with the Vermont and New Hampshire units represented by the American Federation of Teachers Vermont branch and the Maine group affiliated with the Maine State Employees and the Service Employees International Union.
When they return to bargaining, attention will be back on the pay scale. But it’s not just about the numbers, Kruczynska said. It’s also about what increases people will see across the wage scale. “Bump up the lower wage earners higher and the higher wage earners lower. We have proposed a way to do this,” Kruczynska said.
Kruczynska’s pockets were stuffed with tiny leaflets, little slips of paper, each asking supporters to email the agency’s board chair with the message, “We support our PPNNE staff. Settle a fair contract now.”