ReproJobs’ Emily Likins-Ehlers: Overly Cautious Organizations and Imminent Roe Overturn Are Driving Staff Dissent

“We're fucked. Roe is going to fall any day now. And we are going to have to set up bail funds.”

UNITED STATES - JUNE 13: Pro-life activists protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court as they wait for the court to hand down its decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on Monday morning, June 13, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Anti-abortion activists protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court as they wait for the court to hand down its decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 13, 2022. Photo: CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The imminent overturn of Roe v. Wade, coming on top of decades of what many activists consider to be an overly cautious abortion rights movement, is having ripple effects in reproductive rights organizations and clinics, according to Emily Likins-Ehlers, who’s with the group ReproJobs, a worker empowerment center recently highlighted by The Intercept. “People are just trying to grab control where they can,” Likins-Ehlers said. “Making sure that they have a severance when they lose their job in two weeks or whatever has been on the forefront of most workers’ minds that I’ve spoken with. They just want to pay their bills after Roe falls.”

ReproJobs is a nonprofit run by two anonymous organizers who work in the reproductive rights field, as well as Likins-Ehlers. The group has widely followed and influential Instagram and Twitter accounts focused on workplace organizing and discontent inside reproductive rights workplaces. Likins-Ehlers offered to do an interview about the group and its role, which was mentioned in our story on the implosion of the progressive nonprofit world in Washington, D.C., adding that the two co-founders are continuing to remain anonymous.

“I don’t envy anyone who has to manage an organization right now, particularly, but I think they would find that they could actually find more resources if they were willing to ally themselves with the union, by accepting the union into their space,” Likins-Ehlers said, though they agreed with the executive directors cited in The Intercept article that a generational divide and a culture that encourages callouts have made organizations more difficult to manage. Turmoil in progressive organizations generally, and reproductive rights groups specifically, isn’t explained by the presence of a union drive. Some organizations going through upheaval have been unionized for decades, such as NARAL Pro-Choice America or the Sierra Club, while others, like the Guttmacher Institute and Groundswell Fund, are seeing fresh union drives.

There’s a fear, Likins-Ehlers said, that many organizations will soon shut down and blame the union. “That’s what a lot of these reproductive justice orgs will do,” Likins-Ehlers said, referring to a previous organization they had worked with that did just that. “They’ll say, ‘Roe fell, and this became too hard. And I’m too scared of getting arrested. And I guess the union was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and now we have to close.’”

At the same time, Likins-Ehlers said, things have not been going well under the current and former executive directors. “If the managers feel like the conditions are becoming unworkable, that means that the workers are doing a good job disrupting the system. And I think that most of these workers right now know that it’s toast. We’re fucked. Roe is going to fall any day now. And we are going to have to set up bail funds.”

Likins-Ehlers said they work as a part-time contractor for ReproJobs. The two anonymous founders go by the pseudonyms Hermione and Luna. The budget for the operation, ReproJobs said, is around $275,000 this year, and the major funding began around 2019. “If they feel like they can’t rise to this challenge,” Likins-Ehlers said of the managers at nonprofits, “they can get out of the way and let somebody else rise to this challenge. Because there is a generational gap, and more people are unionizing now than ever before.”

“If the managers feel like the conditions are becoming unworkable, that means that the workers are doing a good job disrupting the system.”

Likins-Ehlers said that they had recently been in a webinar with one of their movement heroes, Loretta Ross, an author, activist, and reproductive justice pioneer. Ross, who was featured in The Intercept’s article, has been publicly advocating against callout culture in progressive organizations for several years.

“I really respect Loretta Ross and everything she has to say, and she sort of gave me the business during a webinar a few weeks ago, where she told me that when she was a young organizer, you were lucky to have a sleeping bag on the floor of a church when you went to a protest. Things were different. There weren’t jobs in the movement 50 years ago; this is a new industry that is just forming,” they said.

“Loretta has a book coming out that sort of disrupts callout culture in a really powerful way, and so I think that there’s been a lot of calling out that’s happened in the organizing efforts — specific executive directors have been targeted and have been ousted from their positions of power — and when I speak to workers, I don’t encourage that kind of calling out because I don’t feel like it builds collective power. I feel like it will simply give you a new figurehead to the same dynamic. So when we create a union, we’re simply trying to disrupt the power dynamic in and of itself and say, ‘This isn’t about you, as a leader, or you as a person necessarily. This is about a system, a structure.’”

Likins-Ehlers said that there are indeed examples of employees who lean too heavily into callouts of management over issues that should be handled differently, but that it’s important to separate those instances from the worthy goal of improving workplaces generally. “Loretta Ross said to me that she had an employee that called her out because the employee’s cat died, and she wanted time off to mourn her cat, and Loretta was unwilling to give her time off to mourn her cat or something like this. And that was Loretta’s example of the kinds of conflicts that are happening with the unions, and I had to kind of shrug because I was like, yeah, if a worker came to me with that story, I would tell them to deal with it personally. That’s not what we’re talking about. We are talking about living wages, we’re talking about parental leave. We are talking about the right to have a real job and not a temporary job that can be pulled out from underneath you at any moment. We’re talking about the right to work-life balance.”

Likins-Ehlers added that there were also cultural issues at work, recalling a previous boss of theirs who behaved transphobically. “Our executive director would deadname people,” they said, adding:

So just because you are the director of an abortion clinic doesn’t mean that you are respectful of transgender people. So I’m not saying that Loretta is wrong or that any of these leaders are wrong. They’re right also. But why don’t they just join us? They really aren’t the boss, they are employed by a board of directors. All of these executive directors are just an employee, just like us. Just like the rest of the workers who are trying to unionize, they have a boss, but their boss is a volunteer board of directors instead of an individual. So it’s harder to target. But that is really who runs these nonprofits. It’s not the EDs. The boards are the ones, and these are often people who are wealthy or work in other industries or are high-powered lawyers — like Planned Parenthood has these, like, super high-powered, amazing lawyers who could be spending their time strengthening the movement but instead spend their time fighting the unions, when really the only thing that anybody wants is just a formal contract.

Most of these employees, when they come to me, they’re like: “I don’t want my clinic to shut down. I don’t want my organization to be burdened. I’m not looking for a raise.” They literally just want a formal employment contract. Because we all feel so insecure in this job economy, like you said. So I don’t know. There’s just, I think, cognitive dissonance because, like, I’m holding Loretta Ross’s book, right here, “An Introduction To Reproductive Justice.” And she says, specifically, quote, “Reproductive justice explains that indeed, poverty creates poor conditions for mothering, because it shortens lifespans and increases rates of infant and child mortality and lower birth weights.” So if we’re talking about poverty wages, that’s what a lot of these reproductive justice workers are making in their cities: poverty wages. I made way more money as a busser at a pizza place than I made at the clinic. So for them to question our loyalty to the movement feels really rude.

The cautious politics of many of the leading abortion rights groups, Likins-Ehlers said, also helped bring about the catastrophe the movement is now facing. “When I started in the abortion movement back in 2012, they told me that I wasn’t allowed to use the word abortion as I advocated, that we could only say ‘a woman’s right to choose’ — that saying the word abortion was too radical and too leftist. And I got put on a list, like, ‘Emily’s not allowed to talk to people because she’s too radical about what she says.’ So I’ve always been a disrupter, everywhere I’ve gone. You can ask anyone who’s worked with me, I’m a pain in the fucking ass,” they said. “I felt this moment coming for so many years. And I feel like the movement has — we have been failed.”

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