At the end of June, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that will have profound and negative effects on the LGBT community. You may have heard of this ruling in the case of Janus v. AFSCME thanks to banner headlines around the country proclaiming “Supreme Court Ruling Delivers Sharp Blow to Unions.” And that is exactly what the Supreme Court did with this ruling, which sharply impacts the ability of public employee unions to do their jobs representing folks like teachers, firefighters, public health workers and janitors.
One of the biggest mistakes that progressives make is not connecting how decisions around workers’ rights impact everyone in our movement. Public sector unions have historically been an ally in protecting women, people of color, people with disabilities, adherents to less-common religions and people in the LGTBQ community. Make no mistake, the fallout from this ruling will have far reaching consequences for all of these groups and further denigrate our ability to organize around issues of basic human rights.
The Janus decision is unique because of its outsized impact. On its face, this is a decision about the “free riders” that benefit from union membership but don’t want to contribute financially to union operations. Let’s be clear: the money collected from folks like Mr. Janus goes to paying employee representatives, labor lawyers, and other basic union operations – not political campaigns. These are the nuts-and-bolts kinds of activities that enormously benefit and protect workers, and until this ruling, all members of the union were required to contribute to their union’s basic operating funds.
And even though public sector unions still have to provide the same protections and support for every worker, their ability to even fund their operations is being attacked. This should concern every LGBT person greatly. We must be absolutely clear: unions are good for the LGBT Community.
First, and most critically, in many parts of the country, there is no Employment Non Discrimination Act protecting LGBT workers from being fired just for being LGBT. In those communities, a union contract is the only protection from being fired by a homophobic supervisor. When LGBT organizations mobilize to try and pass ENDA or now Equality Act legislation, sometimes the only allies they have are labor unions. And laws protecting LGBT workers are the law of the land in states like California, thanks in large part to the efforts of labor unions.
For millions of LGBT people public sector unions and union contracts are the only protections they have. While the Janus decision only applies to public sector unions, the intent and the implications for the broader labor community are very clear.
Membership in a union comes with a great number of benefits and protections for our community. LGBT people, particularly lesbians, earn less than their straight counterparts and are more likely to live in poverty. But unionized LGBT workers earn the exact same high wages as their counterparts, thanks to contracts negotiated by their unions.
LGBT workers have unique healthcare needs that can be ongoing and expensive. Transitioning is a lengthy and extraordinarily expensive process for trans workers. Dealing with difficult and isolating childhoods means LGBT Californians need a higher rate of mental health wellness services for depression, alcohol and substance abuse and posttraumatic stress. Elderly members of our community face different long-term care challenges, particularly those without close relatives. Unions negotiate the kind of healthcare benefits that enable us to get the unique care LGBT people need. With the Janus decision the ability for a significant portion of the workforce will now be at a disadvantage.
In the #MeToo era, public sector unions particularly play a crucial role in protecting our community. A trans worker who is constantly bullied and harassed by her coworkers can turn to her union and have plenty of support in changing the workplace culture. A lesbian consistently passed over for promotion by her homophobic supervisor can go to the union and they’ll make sure that she gets the fair shot at advancement she deserves. LGBT workers in a union, regardless of their background, will not have to stand alone when they blow the whistle on the kind of sexist, misogynist, homophobic behavior we have seen in company after company in recent months.
In most jobs, our needs and concerns never even make it to management’s attention. But the union will insist on negotiating and securing these crucial benefits for their LGBT members. That’s why when unions are strong, LGBT workers earn good wages, get the benefits they need, and can go about their jobs without fear of harassment, assault or intimidation. And when unions are weak, LGBT workers are vulnerable to being fired, being attacked, and being degraded every single day.
That’s why Janus strikes so ruthlessly at us. Labor unions aren’t just allies, they’re our partners in the fight for justice. When Harvey Milk organized the bars in San Francisco to join the AFL-CIO in their boycott against Coors Beer, it was because he understood the intrinsic power of people coming together for the betterment of all. Unions have clearly benefited LGBT workers and we will all be hurt by this shameful decision.