The 45th Anniversary of Roe vs. Wade: The “Neutrality” of the Labor Movement

The labor movement has always been involved in social issues. The labor unions may not always start on the most progressive side of the matter, but they end up promoting a mission to better human rights for all. This progression is captured in the displays of the Labor History Collection exhibit “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America.” This pattern is on-going so there are still some debates that the labor movement as a whole have not decided on, such as the legalization of abortion.

CLUW Pro-Choice Button

A Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) button that states their stance is pro-choice. Come check it out in the “Union Feminism: Sisterhood is Powerful” display! AFL-CIO Artifact Collection.

On January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court delivered their decision on the case Roe v. Wade. They ruled that due to the right to privacy, women should have the ability to make their own decision on whether or not to terminate their pregnancy.[1] This case was filed by Jane Roe (pseudonym for Norma McCorvey) to challenge a Texas law that made the procedure of abortion illegal, unless the woman’s life was at stake. After this Supreme Court decision, abortion became legalized within each state, but allowed the state governments to make their own regulations on the policy since the right to privacy is not absolute. Because of this, there are many variations in the laws among all 50 states, such as: what time in the gestation period a women can undergo an abortion; if minors have to notify their parents; and if insurance will cover the costs of the procedure. Overall, the state governments agree that a woman should have an abortion if her health is at risk.

After the Roe v. Wade decision, many people asked the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), which represents the majority of American labor unions, to declare whether they were pro-life or pro-choice. Within the exhibit display “Union Feminism: Sisterhood is Powerful,” the Labor History Archives team chose to showcase a handwritten letter addressed to George Meany, former President of the AFL-CIO. The letter denounces the legalization of abortion and asks Meany to work towards reversing the Supreme Court decision. Below is one of many letters from pro-life advocates that we have in our collection sent to Meany in 1973. The responses to these letters state that the AFL-CIO could not make an official statement on their stance until the Executive Council voted on the matter during the next National Convention.

Not until 1989 did the AFL-CIO declare they would start deliberating on what their stance should be. This was because six resolutions were presented to that year’s National Convention that dealt with reproductive rights. Since there were so many unions calling for the AFL-CIO to make a decision, former AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland created the Committee of Reproductive Issues to make an “all-encompassing policy.”

“The reproductive choice issue has ethical, religious, civil rights and civil liberties, constitutional, political, health and economic implications.” – Joyce Miller, former AFL-CIO Vice President, AFL-CIO News November 27, 1989.

During the National Convention in 1990, President Kirkland decided that this issue should be decided by the individual unions because they will best represent their member’s beliefs. Since this topic is personal and emotional, the AFL-CIO thought it best to have a neutral stance on the matter. Therefore, the affiliates of the AFL-CIO can make their own stances. For example, the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) has stated they are pro-choice.

AFL-CIO News 08_1990 page 178

AFL-CIO News, August 6, 1990.

The strength of the labor movement comes from unity. This unity allows the unions to focus all of their attention on the cause. Without focused determination, there is no power. The reasoning behind the decision to be neutral on the stance of abortion was because the topic is tied to personal beliefs. This vague reasoning to not get involved with abortion has been used by the labor movement before with other reproductive issues, such as birth control. In the 1930s, the American Birth Control League, Inc., also referred to as the “Birth Controllers,” would hand out leaflets at workplaces to promote the use of contraceptives. In a letter from former AFL President William Green to the former UBCJA Secretary Frank Duffy, Green asks if his denouncement of birth control was the right call even though the Executive Council had not deliberated on the matter. Duffy replied saying:

“Before we admitted to the ranks of organized labor we were assured that our religious beliefs, political opinions and domestic duties would not be interfered with, and it was with the assurance that we became members of organized labor.” – March 27, 1931, UBCJA Archives.

So far the subject of abortion has been a tricky situation for the labor unions because it is tied to emotional and personal beliefs. The AFL-CIO has declared a neutral stance on abortion so their affiliates can choose based on their membership. This neutrality has not allowed the labor movement to use their power of unity to fight for a cause. Should these emotional ties be a reason to not stand together? Are not all social issues tied to emotions and personal beliefs? Will the pattern continue and the labor movement make a stance to promote a mission of bettering human rights for women?

If you would like to learn more come visit the labor exhibit in the Hornbake Library gallery or online! If you would like more information about the Labor History Collections email askhornbake@umd.edu.

[1]. Planned Parenthood Federation of America (2014). Roe v. Wade: Its History and Impact. Planned Parenthood. Retrieved at: https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/uploads/filer_public/c6/59/c65961ce-447c-48e1-b315-79bfac151e42/abortion_roe_history.pdf.


Erin Berry is a Graduate Assistant for the Labor History Collection at University of Maryland Special Collections and University Archives. She is pursuing a Masters of Library and Information Science with a concentration in Archives and Digital Curation and expects to graduate in 2018.

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