5 Things Unions Can Do To Defend Transgender Workers

Trans rights are workers’ rights.

Amy Livingston and Sarah Lazare

Netflix employees in Los Angeles stage a walkout on October 20, 2021, in protest of Dave Chapelle's comedy special, which contains jokes about transgender people. Photo by Rodin Eckenroth via Getty Images

The right is escalating its war on transgender, nonbinary, and gender expansive people’s basic right to exist in the open. On March 4, Daily Wire host Michael Knowles said from center stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference that transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.” After receiving negative press, Knowles claimed that he wasn’t calling for the eradication of transgender people themselves, but the actions of the conservative movement he was addressing suggest otherwise.

State legislatures across the country are advancing bills aimed at banning drag queen story hour and drag performances, barring teachers from respecting students’ pronouns, making it more difficult for transgender people to obtain IDs that match their genders, increasing barriers to obtaining healthcare and prohibiting transgender people from using gender-appropriate bathrooms and locker rooms. In the past three years, conservatives have introduced more than 150 anti-transgender bills in at least 25 states. While not all of these measures pass into law, some of them do, and the onslaught itself creates a climate of terror for those who are transgender — or are simply perceived to be.

The labor movement has a special responsibility—and existential need—to defend transgender people and their loved ones from these escalating attacks.

In May, Florida passed a bill that threatens the custody of parents whose children are obtaining such care. Missouri now bans gender-affirming health care for young people and incarcerated adults and prohibits Medicaid from reimbursing gender-affirming care. In 2022, Texas Governor Greg Abbott instructed the Texas Department of Family Protective Services to investigate parents whose transgender children receive gender-affirming care.

The labor movement has a special responsibility — and existential need — to defend transgender* people and their loved ones from these escalating attacks. Transgender people are disproportionately poor and working-class. They are counted among members of unions, and leaders in unionization drives. And management has used anti-transgender policies to undercut union drives. Starbucks, for example, has threatened to punish unionized shops by withholding gender-affirming care benefits from workers at those stores, in what workers say is an anti-union tactic. 

And, most importantly, transgender people deserve to have safe, dignified workplaces and conditions, just like everyone else. To quote the famed motto of the Industrial Workers of the World, An injury to one is an injury to all.”

If the right is able to target, intimidate, and disenfranchise transgender people, it leaves the labor movement weaker and more divided. The same political forces attacking transgender people, after all, are also attacking the broader LGBTQ community, the right to abortion, Critical Race Theory, and union rights and worker protections.

Here are five things the labor movement can do to defend transgender workers.

Anti-discrimination protections

Due to anti-trans bills, and the incitement they foster, transgender workers across the country are losing their right to discrimination- and harassment-free workplaces. At a minimum, every union contract should have non-discrimination language that protects workers from discrimination and harassment on the basis of gender, including gender identity and expression. According to Jerame Davis, the executive director of Pride at Work, an LGBTQ rights labor movement organization, this idea is already catching on. A large number of unions now include gender identity and expression’ in their non-discrimination boilerplate contract language,” Davis said over email.

There are supposed to be federal protections against workplace discrimination: A U.S. Supreme Court ruling from June 2020 determined that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans employment discrimination for transgender status or sexual orientation.

But laws only go so far. First, they are subject to change. In late June, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court undermined important nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people by ruling that the state of Colorado cannot enforce an anti-discrimination law against a Christian website designer who did not want to accept same-sex couples as clients. And second, federal and state anti-discrimination laws have not stopped the scourge of workplace discrimination. According to2022 survey by the Center for American Progress, 7 in 10 transgender respondents (70%) reported experiencing some form of workplace discrimination or harassment in the past year because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or intersex status.”

It is vital that unions include nondiscrimination protections for transgender workers in their contracts even when these protections exist under current law, especially because the enforcement and interpretation of these laws (not to mention the laws themselves) are under serious, organized threat. More protections are always better, including protections in a union contract. Ideally, anti-discrimination contract language would be written broadly enough to protect the most marginalized and vulnerable, to also include protection from discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, country of origin, and disability.

But unions are about more than just contracts. Through workplace organizing and comradery, there are boundless ways that union members can stick up for each other in the face of discrimination, whether it’s writing a joint letter to an employer, filing a grievance, or reaching out to a transgender worker who has been mistreated to see how they would like to be supported.

Some states, like Florida, are trying to pressure private health insurance companies into removing insurance benefits for gender-affirming healthcare.

This collective defense has the potential to be helpful for more than just transgender workers. Ezra Cukor, senior staff attorney at the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, an anti-discrimination organization, says it’s important to make sure discrimination and harassment aren’t tolerated in the workplace. This can look like workplace sexual harassment, as well as anti-transgender harassment. A lot of the anti-discrimination measures that unions can take to benefit transgender workers are similar to measures to protect women in the workplace or other people vulnerable to harassment.”

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Gender-affirming care

Transgender people are losing their right to access gender-affirming healthcare. Some states, like Florida, are trying to pressure private health insurance companies into removing insurance benefits for gender-affirming healthcare. Unions have an opportunity to demand strong contract provisions protecting the right to gender-affirming healthcare for all members and their covered dependents, including in-network coverage for out-of-state care for workers and their families who are not able to seek gender-affirming care within their own state. Union-controlled health and welfare funds ought to cover these costs, too.

The stakes are high. Yana van der Meulen Rodgers is a professor in the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University, where she also directs the Center for Women and Work. My research shows access to gender-affirming healthcare is critical to mental and physical health, and it can’t be emphasized enough,” she says over the phone. Even things like attempted suicide rates are higher for people who are denied access to gender-affirming care.”

Unions like the United Steelworkers have successfully fought to get rid of exclusions of gender-affirming healthcare. According to Cukor, pushing for the elimination of such exclusions is important, but it should be the bare minimum. Really, it should be the case that everybody, and especially folks in unions, should have full gender-affirming care and treatment for gender dysphoria in a way that is expansive enough that people are able to get the procedures that their doctor recommends based on their individual health needs.” A position statement by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health offers suggestions for what healthcare should ideally include, such as hormonal balancing treatment, gender-affirming surgical procedures, and counseling.

Access to bathrooms

Transgender workers, like all workers, must have access to safe and clean facilities at work. This means that they must have access to appropriately gendered or gender-neutral bathrooms, as stipulated in the guidelines of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Access to bathrooms has become a primary site of struggle for transgender people because of fearmongering by anti-trans crusaders. While there is no evidence to support the anti-transgender claim that allowing transgender people to use the bathroom aligned with their gender is dangerous for cisgender (non-transgender) people, there is ample evidence that transgender people suffer from a lack of access to safe restrooms. The 2015 US Transgender Survey reported that 12% of respondents had been harassed or assaulted in a restroom; 32% of respondents limited their eating and drinking so that they would not need to use a public restroom; and an astonishing 59% of respondents had avoided using a public restroom in the previous year.

This issue does not only affect transgender people. Cis women have been harassed and mistreated in restrooms for merely being perceived as transgender.

Unions have an obligation to ensure that employers are providing safe and clean facilities to all employees.

Correct name and pronoun usage in the workplace

In many instances, transgender people change their names and pronouns as part of the gender transition process, to better reflect their gender identity. According to Rodgers from Rutgers, Another thing unions can do is support efforts in the workplace for legal name changes, and having name changes on documents. Research shows it’s good for mental health if transgender people can have legal documents showing their name change. Unions can play a role in making sure it’s easy for people to change their names at work, on contracts, on ID badges, and with their employer directly.”

And there are creative ways to support transgender coworkers. Some unions have contract provisions that allow survivors of intimate partner violence to use sick time to handle their legal affairs, housing, and other related issues. There’s no reason unions can’t also fight for sick time to cover name changes and other legal processes for transgender workers.

Unions have political clout, they knock doors, they reach people in their workplaces, they lobby state houses and Washington. They are the engines of working-class power in this country. This base can be a powerful ally for transgender people as they navigate terrifying political times.

Political fightback

In addition to protecting transgender people in their workplaces, unions can mobilize their members and resources to fight back against anti-trans legislation at every level. While U.S. union density may be low in relative historical terms, union enthusiasm is surging, and the labor movement still represents more than 14 million workers. Unions have political clout, they knock doors, they reach people in their workplaces, they lobby state houses and Washington. They are the engines of working-class power in this country. This base can be a powerful ally for transgender people as they navigate terrifying political times.

While the U.S. labor movement’s track record is uneven, history is filled with shining moments when unions were ahead of their times in fighting on the side of the oppressed. In 1942, the then called International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) stood out for opposing the U.S. internment of Japanese Americans. In 1950, the United Packinghouse Workers of America created an Anti-Discrimination Department” to combat racist hiring practices.

The plight of transgender workers is not separate from the labor movement; their struggle is not something out there,” unrelated to the fight for better conditions and dignified work. They are part of the labor movement — union siblings — and political attacks against them are impacting workplaces across the country and will weaken the labor movement as a whole. There is great potential for a political fightback to further strengthen a bottom-up coalition, by opposing the very right-wing forces that are harming broad swaths of the working class.

In the words of Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender activist and prominent figure in the Stonewall Uprising, You never completely have your rights, one person, until you all have your rights.”

*The authors use the term transgender” throughout this piece for the sake of brevity, but we also mean to include nonbinary and gender expansive people, where applicable. 

​​This article is a joint publication of In These Times and Workday Magazine, a non-profit newsroom devoted to holding the powerful accountable through the perspective of workers.

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Amy Livingston is a labor educator at the Labor Education Service at the University of Minnesota.

Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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