(WOMENSENEWS)–Wisconsin’s passage last week of a law stripping public workers of their bargaining rights is another major attack on reproductive rights and women’s health care access, say family-planning advocates.

"This law has undone four decades of progress in Wisconsin to ensure women’s reproductive health," said Amanda Harrington, spokesperson of the Madison-based Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, in a telephone interview. "It has turned Wisconsin into ground zero in the national movement to make it more difficult for women to obtain and pay for birth control, breast cancer screenings and tests and treatments for sexually transmitted diseases."

Harrington’s organization serves over 73,000 patients in its 27 health centers each year.

Public workers’ unions and their allies have been battling Gov. Scott Walker in three weeks of energetic protests that attracted tens of thousands of demonstrators to Madison.

The unions initially resisted Walker’s demand that workers pay more towards their pensions and health benefits, but then in February agreed to pay 5.8 percent of their wages for pensions and 12.6 percent for health benefits, a combination that is equivalent to an 8 percent pay cut for the average worker who earns $48,348.

That shifted the battle to collective bargaining rights, which unions in the past have used to insist, for instance, that their health plans cover women’s contraceptives. That in turn helped shift private insurance plans in the same direction.

"Increasing the cost of health care benefits from 6 percent to 12 percent of wages hits women hard because they generally earn less than do men," said Harrington. "This is bad enough, but the measure signed by Gov. Walker gives unprecedented powers to the state health department to revamp public health programs without the traditional protections of oversight by the legislature and input from the public."

Most Bargaining Rights Gone

Most of the 175,000 state and local workers in Wisconsin–including the female-dominated ranks of nurses and teachers–will be prohibited from bargaining for wages beyond the rate of inflation, unless approved by a referendum.

Male-dominated unions of firefighters and police who are part of that total are exempt, because Walker said he could not risk disruptions in public safety if these unions staged strikes.

Walker, who introduced many anti-choice bills during his nearly nine years in the Wisconsin assembly, has launched an anti-birth control agenda, according to Lisa Subeck, executive director of the Madison-based NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, the political watchdog of the pro-choice movement.

Subeck said that Walker has an eye on repealing Wisconsin’s Contraceptive Equity Law, which requires insurance plans that cover prescription drugs to also include coverage for prescription birth control.

Initially proposed in 1999, the law has a rocky history; anti-choice activists and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison helped defeat it each time it was introduced. But family planning and public health groups finally got the legislature to pass the measure in 2009. It was included in the budget measure signed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle in 2009 and took effect Jan. 1, 2010. Besides Wisconsin, 25 other states have contraceptive equity laws.

"Under Walker’s plan, insurance companies could choose to cover Viagra but not prescription birth control, which would allow insurers to discriminate against women," Subeck said in a press release. "Although Walker claims the elimination of family planning services is a cost-saving measure, it isn’t. A 2008 Guttmacher Institute study found that every $1 spent on birth control through the Medicaid program saves taxpayers $4.02."

Walker also wants to eliminate Title V, the only state-funded family planning health care program, Subeck said.

Similar Battles Looming

No other governor has taken such a hard line on restricting benefits for reproductive health as Walker, but similar epic battles may be looming in Indiana, Ohio and Idaho, where all three anti-choice governors are grappling with massive budget deficits caused by the recession.

"Gov. Walker and conservative state legislators are out to do more than bust the public sector unions," said Amy Stear, Wisconsin director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, the national organization of low-income women based in Milwaukee. "They are determined to deny the American dream to teachers, nurses and others who are the backbone of the middle class by eliminating a wide range of benefits."

Stear says employers in the private sector may also eliminate health, child care and other benefits that women need to work.

"This would be a disaster for families in cities like Milwaukee, where unemployment among 18-to-45 year old African American men ranges from 45 to 60 percent and the women’s wages barely cover the rent," she said.

Walker, who was elected in November when Republicans gained control of the legislature, claimed that curbing the power of public-sector unions was necessary to help the state overcome the $137 million hole in the current budget and the $3.6 billion deficit projected for the next biennial budget.

National Nurses United, the largest union of registered nurses in the United States, disagrees. The union, based in Washington, D.C., is running a publicity campaign that stresses that workers are not responsible for the fiscal problems of states like Wisconsin.

The nurses distributed flyers at rallies at the Wisconsin Capitol showing that two-thirds of Wisconsin corporations pay no taxes and that the share of state revenues from corporation taxes have fallen by half since 1981.

The showdown in Wisconsin has galvanized and energized the labor movement, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research for Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Ithaca, N.Y., in a telephone interview.

"Wisconsin was the first state to give collective bargaining to public sector workers in 1959, so workers in other states realize that if this can happen in Wisconsin, it can happen anywhere," she said. "As a result, unions in the private and public sectors are going to take a more active role in the political process."

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Sharon Johnson is a New York-based freelance writer.

For more information:

Statement on the Budget Repair Bill Proposal (JR ISB 11), University of Wisconsin System Women’s Studies Consortium, March 2011:

Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin:

NARAL Pro-Choice America:

9to5, National Association of Working Women: