Commentary

Labor unions can protect LGBTQ workers even when the law fails

rainbow fist in front of capitol
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Labor Day is usually when we take the opportunity to remind folks that the best, most durable protection LGBTQ working people can obtain is a union contract.

When poor and working class people mobilize, social and economic change happens.

Related: Supreme Court rules in favor of LGBTQ rights in landmark decision

After the Supreme Court ruled in June that federal law indeed protects LGBTQ people from workplace discrimination, that’s now more true than ever.

Many union contracts include explicit prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity or expression.

But nearly every contract prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex or includes a reference to complying with all federal laws.

This means every one of these contracts now has the mandate to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination at work.

And those contracts don’t just offer the same protections as federal law; they also come with the representation and power of the union.

If you are covered by a union contract and your employer discriminates against you, the union will generally advise and represent you in any disciplinary proceedings or grievance processes to rectify the situation.

In workplaces without a union contract, you’re typically on your own in those proceedings and you will have to hire your own legal counsel for advice and support.

Even better, through the collective bargaining process, you and your union can negotiate things such as fully inclusive healthcare, mandatory inclusion training, and appropriate bathroom access for everyone.

Coming together in a union is the most powerful thing working people can do to create change in their workplace.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become increasingly clear that the power imbalance in many of our workplaces has a drastic impact on our daily lives.

Lack of personal protective equipment, refusal to enforce basic safety protocols like wearing masks and frequent sanitizing, and other irresponsible behavior by employers put many essential workers at great risk.

From higher infection and death rates to harsher economic fallout, people of color have disproportionately borne the brunt of the negative effects of this pandemic.

Black and Latino Americans are still dying at significantly higher rates. Attacks on Asian Americans have increased dramatically. And the economic fallout has hit these communities harder, as well.

There’s no publicly available data on LGBTQ infection and death rates, but there we are starting to get a picture of the economic impact on LGBTQ people.

Our community saw higher layoffs and hour reductions than the general public. And if you are an LGBTQ person of color, those effects were even worse.

Forty percent of LGBTQ people work in just five industries: restaurants and food service, hospitals, K-12, higher education, and retail.

These industries were hard hit – though in very different ways – by the pandemic. It may be years before we know the full extent of the fallout.

All of this leads back to where we work and how much power we have at those workplaces. Workers in unions have the power to combat these outcomes.

A union contract can offer nondiscrimination provisions, layoff protections, health and safety requirements, and more.

And if the boss doesn’t act on those needs, those workers have tools in their toolbox to fight back.

Grievance procedures allow you to file formal complaints against your employer for violating the contract.

Other actions, such as informational pickets and strikes are possible options if your employer doesn’t comply.

And all of this, if done correctly, is protected by law and contracts are enforceable in court.

This Labor Day, as we look toward the new normal after the pandemic subsides, let’s commit to changing the power dynamic at work.

If your workplace has a union, join and pay your dues.

If you’re already a member, get more involved with your union.

If you don’t already have a union, we know some folks who can help with that too.

By coming together, we can beat back the scourges of racial injustice and LGBTQ discrimination at work and in our communities that have become so evident during this pandemic.

There is no greater power than the power of poor and working people.

When we organize, we win.

Shellea Allen and Gabe González are the co-presidents of Pride at Work, the organization for LGBTQ working people. Learn more at prideatwork.org.

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