Why LGBTs should care about unions

Workers’ rights on the job? The freedom to organize into unions? Is this an issue for LGBT people? It sure is. Says who? Well, Ricardo Bostic, for one.

A retired lab and storeroom manager at Temple University, Ricardo knows exactly what it’s like to enjoy strong protection against sexual-orientation discrimination on the job. It started for him as far back as 1979. It wasn’t because of any law in Philadelphia (which arrived years later) or Harrisburg or Washington (which has still never arrived). It was because of Ricardo’s union contract.

He’s been in a loving relationship with his partner, Le-Mont Johnson, for 44 years. Yet they can’t get married in Pennsylvania. They can’t even enter into a civil union.

But there’s an institution that’s honored and recognized them as domestic partners, not only with symbolism but by offering full health-insurance benefits. It’s the union contract.

What Ricardo and Le-Mont have experienced, my partner Denice and I have experienced. For us, the union movement has made all the difference in the world. And we’re not alone. In every neighborhood in the Philadelphia area, there are LGBT workers — black and brown and white, young and old, single and partnered — who are quietly building better, more secure lives through their unions.

Union members have median wages 30-percent higher than workers who don’t have a union card in their wallet. And with a union, you’re much more likely to have decent health-insurance benefits and a guaranteed pension.

That’s true for all workers. But what about LGBT workers? Do we need a union as much as others? No. We need it more. Far too often, we’re the first to be discriminated against and harassed by management, so no one needs a voice in the workplace more than we do.

You’d think that most workers, LGBT and straight, would want to be in a union. You’d be right. A Peter Hart survey indicates that more than half of American workers would be in unions if they could choose it freely — yet only 12.4 percent of American workers are in unions now.

So what gives?

Something’s gone badly wrong in America. Today, you can express any opinion (or none) and worship (or not worship) any way you want. If you’re LGBT, you now have more freedom to live the way you want than ever before.

But if you try to exercise your right to join a union, you’re in serious trouble. Sure, there’s the system under the National Labor Relations Board for organizing into unions. But over the years, it’s been deformed into a terrible meat-grinder-like process. Your employer may lie to you, intimidate you, spy on you and perhaps even fire you illegally.

Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University found in a study of more than 1,000 union organizing campaigns over four years that these kinds of tactics are shockingly common among employers. Fifty-seven percent threaten to close the worksite if the employees choose a union, 47 percent threaten to cut their wages and benefits and 34 percent actually fire workers.

Workers should never have to endure all of this just to get a union.

So what’s the solution? The Employee Free Choice Act would help a lot.

You’ve probably heard of it. Its centerpiece is majority signup. If most employees in your workplace sign cards saying they want to join a union, you get your union, plain and simple. The Employee Free Choice Act sounds fair because it is.

Sen. Bob Casey supports it, but Sen. Arlen Specter is in the middle right now. He needs to hear your opinion. Just call his office at (215) 597-7200 or go online to specter.senate.gov. Tell him you support the Employee Free Choice Act and he should too.

Don’t do it for Ricardo or me. We don’t need it. We’re among the lucky LGBT workers who already have unions.

Instead, send the message in honor of those magnificent, precious LGBT kids who are soon going out into the world to get their first jobs. Do it so that when they’re building our homes, teaching our students, checking our groceries and nursing us back to health, they’ll have more opportunity and security and power on the job than most of us when we were young could ever dream of.

It’s that important.

Nancy Wohlforth is the first openly LGBT worker in history to serve as a vice-president and Executive Council member of the AFL-CIO. She is also secretary-treasurer of the Office and Professional Employees International Union and co-president of Pride at Work, the organization of LGBT union members.