Transgender rights conference builds union-LGBTQ solidarity
Students rally against hate to support the transgender community at the 3rd annual Transgender Spectrum Conference.

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – While some unions have had a mixed approach to LGBTQ rights, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 655 has been on the cutting edge, fighting for workplace protections for transgender members. The union last week led a session at a conference to educate the transgender community and allies about workplace protections that unions can provide.

The Transgender Spectrum Conference, hosted by a coalition of LGBTQ rights groups here (including: Metro Trans Umbrella Group, Missouri PROMO, and Transparent Saint Louis), took place at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work November 4 and 5.

The conference, now in its third year, included academic presentations, storytelling sessions, film screenings and technical trainings encompassing the entire spectrum of transgender identity.

Laura Kelley, co-chair of OUTreach, Local 655’s constituency group for LGBTQ Partners, and Alex Lange, union representative UFCW Local 655, hosted a session called “Building Power for Transgender Workers through Unions.” Kelley is an out lesbian who is cisgender (in other words, her gender assigned at birth matches her identity), in a traditionally straight, cisgender, and male dominated union and workforce.

Common struggles

Undoubtedly, union workers and LGBTQ activists have long faced common struggles and common adversaries.

The presenters discussed historical ties between the LGBTQ community and labor organizing, and the labor movement’s representation of people who have suffered discrimination. Attendees were informed about UFCW-represented shops and were encouraged to reach out for job opportunities, or if they are employed, for help in organizing their workplaces.

“Even though the law mandates coverage for medical transition, my insurance company still hasn’t even covered a checkup since finding out I’m trans,” said Workers Education Society member and conference attendee Elise, a transgender woman. “But in union workplaces, workers are bargaining to get trans-inclusive policies. I’ve heard one will be offered to city employees next year. This is further proof that all workers need union representation. If I were fulltime and in this union, I could go to the doctor again.  That’s what a difference a union makes to trans people.”

Kelley had her own story to tell. Several years ago, she and her wife acquired a marriage certificate in Iowa before marriage equality was passed on the federal level. After moving to St. Louis, she brought her marriage license to her union president. Citing the union’s contract, she sought the same health care benefits for her wife that her fellow union members were entitled to.

“I told UFCW Local 655 President David Cook that if I didn’t receive my legal benefits that I was prepared to sue the union that I love so much,” Kelley said. “He was grinning from ear-to-ear because I was willing to push for these rights. He said that he only needed one member to stand up to make it happen.”

“A few months later I was called to an executive board meeting where I was convinced I was going to be denied my rights,” Kelley continued.

However, the President Cook stated that from that moment forward, same-sex married couples would be granted their full benefits under the contract, beginning in January 2014. And he didn’t want to hear any arguments.

“I lost it. I just started to cry. It wasn’t until that moment that people understood how much these benefits meant to me and my family.”

Conference participants headed out to a lunchtime demonstration: a student-led protest against Westboro Baptist Church members who were picketing the conference. Students, staff, faculty, and conference attendees chanted, waved signs and stood in solidarity with the transgender community against hate.

Standing up for transgender workers

Kelley, who also provides training for other union locals about issues transgender people face in the workplace, said she had worked with Saint Louis Metro Trans Umbrella Group (MTUG) to provide a Trans 101 training at Local 655.

“Our partners have grown to respect me, and know that we do not tolerate discrimination against our transgender siblings. Our shops are a safe space for transgender people to work and to come out,” she said. “If you discriminate about bathrooms in one of our shops, we are going to have a problem.”

Kelley recalled the words of a transgender teacher’s union member: “When I came out,” the trans woman said, “my first stop was my union rep, who guided me in a respectful way.”

Kelley said that “unions stand to be a powerful, protective force in the many states that do not offer workplace protections to LGBTQ people. We can protect them from discrimination and push policy-makers to abandon discriminatory laws, like North Carolina’s HB 2, AKA the Bathroom Bill.”

She said UFCW Local 655, representing 12,000 workers in the greater St. Louis area, has a “powerful voice in politics.” Local 655 President David Cook “spoke out against Missouri’s SJR 39 ‘religious liberty’ bill, which would have targeted LGBTQ people if passed,” Kelley concluded.