California's leading union organization, bucking organized labor's long-standing neutrality on the issue of abortion, is for the first time taking a strong stand in favor of abortion rights.
Meeting behind closed doors last month, the California Labor Federation -- which represents more than 2.1 million workers belonging to more than 1,100 affiliated unions -- voted to oppose Proposition 85, a November ballot initiative that would require doctors to notify parents before performing abortions on minors. In a policy statement, the labor federation also urged the national AFL-CIO "to reconsider its position of neutrality on the issue."
Union leaders say polling shows that a majority of their members support abortion rights, but major labor organizations generally have avoided taking stances that would turn off those members with strong moral objections to abortion.
The most recent written version of the national AFL-CIO policy, adopted in 1990, says that though union members "resent and resist government intrusion into matters that are essentially private," the AFL-CIO yields on the subject of abortion "to the good and sound judgment of union members.... Sincere and dedicated trade unionists can be found on both sides of these issues."
Albin Rhomberg, one of the organizers of the Yes on 85 campaign, denounced the California federation's vote and suggested that the unions were out of step with their members on parental notification.
"I don't think the vote represents union members," Rhomberg said.
AFL-CIO officials in Washington said they were unaware of any other labor federation in the country that had taken a position like California's.
Academics who study labor called the California federation's move potentially precedent-setting and noted that in the past the state's unions have been early advocates for national change, most recently in the push to make the labor movement more open to immigrants.
"Most Americans are pro-choice, and taking this step ... is a pretty major and bold statement that they want to take a leadership role in changing the debate around the right to choose," said Peter Dreier, director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College and a close observer of California's labor movement.
"As unions become weaker, as traditional allies fall away, unions can rely increasingly on the liberal left and the radical left," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a leading scholar of labor history at UC Santa Barbara. "Abortion rights are key issues for American liberals, and these are their allies."
In unions as in politics, major changes in policy are often carefully vetted and poll-tested, but this shift came unexpectedly as delegates to the biennial convention of the federation in Los Angeles discussed what stance to take on a half-dozen resolutions offered by local labor councils on subjects such as healthcare legislation, the Mexican elections and initiatives on California's fall ballot.
In 2005, labor took no position on Proposition 73, a parental notification initiative similar to this November's Proposition 85. Proposition 73 was narrowly defeated, with 53% of Californians voting no and 47% yes.
At the time, several leaders of the federation, many of them women, expressed frustration that labor had not come out in opposition to 73.
"That anger created a lot of internal debate," said Bill Camp, executive secretary of the Sacramento Central Labor Council.
It appeared at first that the California federation would again remain neutral after its executive council voted 13-11 to take no position on Proposition 85. But the federation has changed in recent years, with women taking more leading roles (both the president of the federation and the leader of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor are women).
In addition, healthcare unions, which support abortion rights, have become more assertive. Some of these constituencies worked behind the scenes to override the executive council's vote.
Among those who advocated opposing the initiative was Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers and a Roman Catholic. She pointedly told federation leaders that "I am a mother of 11 children -- by choice." Huerta also persuaded the Feminist Majority Foundation -- a national nonprofit group that is strongly in favor of abortion rights -- to dispatch a dozen interns to distribute leaflets at the hotel where the union convention took place.
When the issue came up at a meeting of convention delegates, dozens of people lined up to speak. Sentiment was so strongly in favor of coming out against Proposition 85 that federation leaders cut off debate and called for a voice vote, according to accounts from a dozen union members in attendance at the session. The voice vote was overwhelming, they said, and the executive council's decision was overturned.