Like so many, I’m heartbroken and angry (but not surprised) by the news that Trump’s Department of Justice has decided to abandon transgender and gender non-conforming people when they face discrimination in the workplace. But I’m also determined to uplift structures in the workplace that can help us protect ourselves and our LGBTQ and gender non-conforming (GNC) family no matter who is in power in Congress, sitting in the Oval Office, or even occupying the C-suite penthouse at your job.
So, as you despair, take heart. Luckily, the structure I’m talking about already exists. It’s called a union. Union collective bargaining agreements can provide protections that would otherwise be unavailable under federal and state law to help ensure that all workers avoid discrimination and have access to benefits. And even where protections are available, unions can help to prevent discrimination and enforce the laws that are in place. In response to the recent Janus Supreme Court Case, a couple of briefs spoke to the benefits unions are able to win and defend for all workers. As we wrote in our NWLC brief:
- Unions have frequently bargained to protect LGBTQ workers. For example, within the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Union, over 1,000 union contracts prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and many include gender identity language. As a result, the grievance procedures established through unions frequently provide the primary (or sole) recourse for workers who face discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
- Unions also provide greater opportunities for LGBTQ workers to support their families. While 53 percent of state and local workers represented by unions had access to health care coverage for same-sex domestic partners, only 17 percent of non-union state and local workers had this access.
And an incredible brief filed jointly by the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, The National Center for Lesbian Rights, The National LGBTQ Task Force and PFLAG details personal stories which so vividly illustrate the power of these protections:
- “In the mid-1980s, the Columbia clerical local union improved wages and benefits and then leveraged “that secure economic context” to collectively bargain for protections and benefits for LGBT workers, including: nondiscrimination protection, spousal equivalent bereavement leave, health coverage, and tuition benefits for domestic partners.”
- “In 1989, a Boston school bus driver filed a grievance with his union after a supervisor with access to his disability records revealed that the driver had AIDS, which led to the driver enduring verbal and physical harassment, including being chained to a radiator. The local union—United Steel Workers of America Local 8751—rallied in support of his grievance, and the company agreed to provide the worker with permanent health insurance and to sponsor AIDS training for the entire workforce.” (While it is critical to acknowledge that HIV and AIDS are widespread diseases not unique to the LGBTQ community, it is true that the LGBTQ community has been disproportionately affected by the ravages of the disease – and that support for someone with AIDS in 1989 was also an act of solidarity with the LGBTQ community.)
- “In the 1980s, a union steward in an industrial laundry facility in New Jersey was harassed when she returned to work after gender reassignment surgery. She raised the issue with her representative from the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union who both resolved her complaint and successfully negotiated with management to add “change of sex” to the list of protected classes during the next round of contract negotiations.”
Even if the courts are against us, we can and will still show up for each other. In this moment we need to organize as fast and as deeply as possible. At the same time, we should urge unions to lead on this issue and hold unions accountable for protecting all of their members when they face discrimination; whether on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity – or on the basis of another protected class like race, sex, disability, age, national origin, or otherwise. Despite the inspiring stories outlined here, many unions do not historically have the best track record when it comes to protecting workers from discrimination. But times are changing, and I believe that we can, and will all rise to face the times. Despite Trump’s best efforts, we can still protect each other through solidarity and collective action.
- If you are looking for information about LGBTQ rights, check out the resource pages from Lambda Legal and NCTE.
- For more information about workplace organizing, check out resources from the AFL-CIO, UE, and coworker.org.
- For a groundbreaking history of LGBTQ workers and the labor movement, check out Miriam Frank’s 2014 book, Out in the Union.