How Unions Can Help
Unions are responsible for representing and advocating for their members and can be a powerful resource in fighting all kinds of workplace discrimination. When union fights are successful, they are particularly noteworthy because collective bargaining agreements (reached through formal negotiations between unions and employers) are legally binding in ways that other kinds of employer policies and protections may not be. Unions can also make a compelling argument to employers with sites in multiple states, because a collective bargaining agreement standardizes employment protections for the entire bargaining unit, regardless of a state’s employment protection laws. A local union or chapter may also be affiliated with a much larger state or international union that can pass member resolutions endorsing the rights and equality of LGBT people and those with HIV.
Unions can support LGBT employees and those with HIV by:
- Fighting for an inclusive employee nondiscrimination clause, domestic partnership benefits and transgender-inclusive health insurance coverage.
- Making equal benefits for LGBT people a primary focus during contract negotiations and demanding and enforcing transparent employment, disciplinary and termination practices that protect all workers.
- Being instrumental in shaping an employer’s workplace diversity program.
- Supporting improvements in the law for LGBT people and people living with HIV through advocacy by union lobbyists.
- Identifying pro-LGBT, pro-union political candidates and helping to block anti-LGBT candidates.
- Showing respect for same-sex relationships by extending all union benefits (such as union pension plans in addition to health insurance) to same-sex partners and the families of same-sex couples and ensuring that membership-assistance programs are sensitive to the concerns of LGBT people and people with HIV.
- Designing and conducting inclusive diversity trainings for union staff and membership and providing a higher level of training for shop stewards and others who handle grievances for LGBT and HIV-positive employees, as well as hosting or sponsoring educational forums around LGBT and HIV issues.
- Increasing the visibility of LGBT people and people with HIV within the union by including stories and columns about LGBT and HIV issues in membership publications and websites and elevating LGBT people and people with HIV to leadership positions.
Like some employers, co-workers and governments, not all unions are receptive to the needs of their LGBT and HIV-positive members. The education process may be slow going and a little frustrating at times. Even if your union is doing nothing for LGBT workers specifically, you should make sure they are insisting that employees can be fired only “for cause,” as this provides protection against discrimination.
Bear in mind that unions must not discriminate against LGBT workers even if the union is located in a city or state where LGBT employees are not explicitly protected from discrimination. For example, if a union hiring hall won’t give a construction worker an assignment because she is a lesbian, the worker may have grounds to file a discrimination complaint or a grievance under the procedure outlined in her collective bargaining agreement, or may sue in court claiming breach of the union’s duty of fair representation.
If your union leaders decline to help you with a workplace grievance or if they do so halfheartedly, you have the option of talking directly to an attorney about any discrimination you experience at work (call Lambda Legal’s Help Desk for helping finding an attorney in your area). You might also consider forming a caucus within your union to improve the outlook for LGBT and HIV-positive members in the future.