Early January of this year, healthcare workers went on a strike outside of the administrative offices of Howard Brown Health in Chicago, a nonprofit dedicated to healthcare for LGBTQ people, chanting, “Queer liberation, no exploitation.” Having lost $12 million in federal funding, the nonprofit suddenly laid off 61 union employees and four non-union workers, violating several labor laws, according to Howard Brown Health Workers United—the organization’s recently formed union.
Among the crowd were members of The National LGBTQ Workers Center (NLWC), a collective founded in 2018 made up of and for BIPOC trans, gender-expansive, queer, sick and disabled workers. Their mission is to ensure marginalized workers have rights and protections on the job, healthcare, housing security, and “power to hold employers accountable when they fail to meet the standards for a healthy, affirming and safe workplaces.”
Despite 20 states and D.C. having laws that explicitly prohibit work discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, being an LGBTQ worker in the U.S. remains to be a challenge. In July of 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau added questions on sexual orientation and gender identity to the Household Pulse Survey to gather data on how people’s lives were impacted by COVID. The data showed that LGBTQ people are more likely—if not just as likely—to be employed compared with non-LGBTQ people, but “[LGBTQ individuals] are also more likely to live in households earning below the poverty line and to struggle to make ends meet.” The data also revealed that LGBTQ respondents of color and trans respondents were more likely to earn less than $25,000 a year.
Today is May Day, also known across the globe as International Labor Day, a holiday that grew out of the 19th-century labor movement for worker’s rights and an eight-hour workday in the U.S. This holiday, NLWC’s Board President Aimée-Josiane Powell-Ingabire and Communication and Membership Chair Molly Benitez share their thoughts with Reckon about the crisis of LGBTQ workers’ rights, the significance of striking, and how we can show up for queer and trans workers.
What do you think are the most important issues to lift up for LGBTQ workers this May Day?
Powell-Ingabire: I think there’s a legal crisis in this moment, where on one hand the SCOTUS has affirmed the workplace rights of LGBTQ people, but we’re also seeing states actively work to roll back those rights at work and in education institutions. [Queer and trans] BIPOC in particular have to continue living our lives in spite of the violent interactions that we have with systems and hateful individuals, so what I would lift up is resistance. Whether that resistance looks like getting a written contract or asserting your right to have your name and gendered affirmed at work, or actually organizing for more accessible workplaces. We just have to resist.
Benitez: LGBTQ workers face many issues in the workplace including discrimination, unequal pay, and harassment. And while laws have been passed, such as Bostock v Clayton in 2020 that protects workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, the actual implementation of the law is much more difficult. It’s extremely hard to prove discrimination which requires indisputable proof as well as the money to hire a lawyer and go to court. Many LGBTQ workers are stopped before they get in the door. We also know that this challenge becomes even harder for those who are multiply marginalized by race, disability, socioeconomic status.
What are the biggest issues impacting trans people? Can you give me specific examples?
Powell-Ingabire: A central struggle for trans folks, especially BIPOC, sick and disabled trans folks, is trying to work in jobs that were not only not designed for you, but also intentionally designed to make it more difficult for you to thrive at work. Trans folks are some of the most discriminated against (almost 50% of trans workers don’t get hired or promoted), and the nature of discrimination is that it works across many institutions, so before a trans person is denied a job, they may have also been discriminated against in housing or their education, and this just adds to the mental and economic toll of being a trans person. And then once you’re in the workplace, trans folks are subjected to harassment less about denying them work and more about making the workplace toxic and emotionally damaging for that trans person. Harassment is very hard to prove, and the burden is often on the person being harassed to prove that it’s happening. This is one place that we really want to support people in knowing their rights and documenting cases of harassment and abuse–so often we leave toxic jobs (as we should) but without getting that abuse on record, so it can make it hard to hold employers accountable.
Benitez: Because of the socioeconomic and political system we live in, Trans people face higher rates of unemployment and poverty. We have laws that ‘protect’ Trans folks but that doesn’t mean they will even get a job as discrimination often shows up right at the interview stage. Trans people are daily trying to survive in a world that repeatedly, as we can see with current legislation, tells them they are not valuable and creates barriers to basic needs. Because of violence and lack of access to resources for Trans folks access to higher wage jobs or jobs that may require more specialized education. Within the workplace trans workers face issues of basic safety from bathroom access to proper pronoun use. For example, we see a lot of issues with “professional attire.” If you are not ‘passing’ or your boss or coworkers don’t accept your gender identity they will almost always have issues with your clothing. It will never fit what they expect you to wear.
What can you say about recent anti-trans and anti-drag bans, and how they’re important for LGBTQ workers?
Powell-Ingabire: The anti-trans and anti-drag bans are disgusting and shameful… and reflective of the epidemic-level violence against trans people that we’ve seen the past several years–to me it’s somewhat connected. Across all racial and ethnic communities, we do need a shift of consciousness that’ll bring more people into the fight to resist anti-trans laws. It is very clear that these laws are also ways for the right to build its power by pushing policies that are designed to inspire extreme conservatism and push candidates that reflect that. It’s ridiculous that a state like Georgia, where I live, where many if not most students don’t even have access to comprehensive and science-based education about their bodies, would have the gull to pass a bill banning gender-affirming care for young people who do in fact know enough about their bodies to seek that care. What the other side hopes is that drag performers and trans people will go into hiding and disappear but we’ve come too far as a queer movement for that to be a reality–and I still think the labor movement could do more to 1. support trans leadership within this movement, and 2. support building the political power to hold accountable every legislator that is pushing for these laws.
Benitez: All the recent bans we’ve been seeing against LGBTQ people have been against basic issues that feel like they should be assumed, i.e. access to healthcare. All of these laws are the first step to more and more laws that constrict our bodily autonomy and access to everyday life. It will continue to get worse if we don’t organize against these laws now.
Tell me about strikes. How do you see the possibility for coalition building and inter-industry strikes happening in the next year?
Powell-Ingabire: That would be wild and inspiring. I think of strikes as a method of last resort and many of us are at that point. I support any organized strike because we do need to show our power as workers. I would love to see a strike with a demand to raise the minimum wage in the US, including eliminating legal sub-poverty wages for sick and disabled workers, and abolishing tipped labor.
Benitez: We’re all workers navigating a neoliberal system that will take advantage of everyone and particularly those who are multiply marginalized. We need to understand that all of our struggles are connected. This is also a time when workers are starting to realize the power of unions from Amazon to Starbucks, worker power is taking on billion dollar industries and we all need to come together to support each other’s fights. Showing up on the picket line to support other workers shows our strength in numbers. If we all stopped working and demanded more the U.S. would effectively shut down.
Why the focus on LGBTQ workers? And why in this particular moment?
Benitez: Women of color and particularly Black feminists have told us that we need to center those most impacted. At this moment, that is Black, Brown, and Indigenous LGBTQ folks are part of that group. History has shown us that rights don’t “trickle down.” Additionally, class is an identity that should bring us all together. In our current moment where we have the 1% and everyone else, we need to understand that it is the exploitation of all of our labor that continues to destroy the earth and make the 1% richer.
What about worker protections after COVID? How has the government pandemic changed things for workers’ rights?
Powell-Ingabire: So there has been some progress in worker organizing throughout the pandemic and much more of a focus on health and safety at work. A lot of industries and workplaces have been exposed in ways that are helpful, and some dynamic organizing campaigns of factory and retail workers have helped a lot of new workers imagine what it looks like when we don’t suffer terrible working conditions alone. A struggle though, we don’t actually have well-funded departments of labor and occupational health and safety offices in general, and especially in places where people are having difficulty winning unions, these reports to these offices are workers’ best chance at seeking some legal recourse. One thing that was so frustrating during the pandemic and before it began is the fact that there are not enough people in the institutions that are supposedly set up to be safeguards against abusive and unsafe workplaces.
Benitez: If you ask me, the government hasn’t done much for us and the little they did they are trying to roll back. COVID showed us just how important workers are. We saw that “essential workers” were not just healthcare workers but also fast food workers, rideshare drivers, food deliverers, etc. Despite COVID work has gotten better for most “essential workers.” Pay hasn’t increased much and any pay increases or COVID benefits have been rolled back. We’re back to business as usual and workers are starting to realize that it’s not good enough. Now, we have workers who are still navigating COVID in a time when the majority of people think the pandemic is over. People are still getting sick and people are still dying and those people are generally workers in low paying, customer facing jobs.
Lastly, how can people outside of NLWC support the collective? What is something the collective needs from those who aren’t affiliated?
Powell-Ingabire: Right now as we’re growing our capacity to support trans and queer workers, we need people. Specifically people with expertise organizing, worker cooperatives, the arts, transformative justice, peer-support, facilitation and fundraising. We’re trying to build an organization that is not beholden to philanthropic institutions, and one that honors the wealth of skills and knowledge within the LGBTQ community. And for those who want to support us as accomplices, we encourage people to donate or host fundraisers to support our campaigns.
Benitez: There are so many ways to support us! You can support us by sharing our social media and events. Supporting us monetarily so we can continue to bring attention to campaigns, labor issues, and workers rights. All our struggles are tied together. For those who are not affiliated, you can still support us! It doesn’t matter if you are part of the LGBTQ community or not, you need to understand that by making the workplace better for those most impacted it by default will make it better for others.