The Best Way to Secure LGBTQ Rights: Unions

Labor’s ability to improve queer workers’ lives stems from its power to raise standards for all workers.

People picket in front of a Starbucks store in the Greektown neighborhood on June 24, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. The event, organized by the Starbucks union, was one of many pickets held nationwide after the coffee giant and the union clashed over claims that the company was not allowing Pride month decorations in Starbucks coffee shops. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

In the early months of 2020, queer Starbucks baristas brewed a plan to challenge their low wages and workplace discrimination. I first learned about the campaign while attending a national LGBTQ advocacy meeting where a group of these workers previewed their organizing agenda. Sitting in a dim hotel conference room, I listened to the baristas share their experiences, which mixed episodes of humiliation and financial hardship — a trans worker’s “dead name” (pretransition name) that reappeared on each week’s work calendar; a work calendar that never listed one worker’s name (dead or chosen) enough times to keep their name on an apartment lease. Many of the workers shared their disillusionment with a company that had portrayed itself as corporate America’s trans rights vanguardist. In fact, Starbucks had just released its “#whatsyourname” advertising campaign, which featured trans and gender-diverse customers asking to have their chosen names scribbled onto coffee cups. Challenging the company’s rosy narrative, UNITE HERE issued press releases in February 2020 documenting Starbucks baristas’ complaints of discrimination, low wages, and too few hours.

LGBTQ advocacy and leadership appear central to a new generation of labor militants. Take for example the Starbucks workers who have voted to unionize over 350 cafes. Reflecting on these efforts, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization’s (AFL-CIO) Pride at Work executive director Jerame Davis remarked that the union drive was “one of the queerest union campaigns I’ve ever seen.” In June of that year, over three thousand Starbucks Workers United members struck against the company’s decision to prohibit in-store Pride decorations, a policy that some perceived as capitulating to rising anti-LGBTQ sentiment. Beyond Starbucks, Pride at Work has received an influx of requests from labor leaders seeking advice on queer-inclusive contract provisions. Among international unions, the United Auto Workers (UAW) recently created an LGBTQ caucus, and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have agitated for trans teachers’ and students’ rights.

Now is an appropriate time to assess why queer advocacy seems commonsense to many of today’s unionized workers. One answer is that unions promoting LGBTQ issues can deliver — through negotiations — often more readily than civil rights law or supposedly progressive corporations can. However, inspiring as an unabashedly queer working-class politics might be — that is, an approach to labor struggle that centers specific LGBTQ reforms such as antidiscrimination contract provisions and trans-inclusive health care plans — organized labor’s ability to improve queer workers’ lives stems ultimately from its power to raise standards for all workers. This is in no small part because the basic union contract gains that positively impact LGBTQ workers are essentially the same ones that address the health, income, and housing needs of all workers.

In what follows, I document historic and contemporary instances where labor unions have embraced LGBTQ equality reforms while highlighting the power that across-the-board economic issues have for all workers — queer or not. Although the former are essential to creating equality within the working class, the latter hold the most potential for improving LGBTQ workers’ lives and for creating bonds of solidarity among workers in an age where economic fears are so regularly redirected toward antiqueer scapegoating ends.

The Queer Appeal of Unions

Queer workers’ organizations and the broader trade union movement frequently provide protections and benefits that legislators, courts, and corporations are often unable or unwilling to deliver. A look at demographics is instructive here. LGBTQ Americans experience higher rates of poverty than their straight cisgender peers in a country where high rates of debt, inadequate health insurance, and at-will employment are already widespread. According to a 2021 report published by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy, 17 percent of LGBTQ people experienced poverty compared to a 12 percent rate among straight cisgender people. Trans people exhibit even higher rates of poverty than most other cross-sections of the queer population. What might account for these disparities? A 2017 report issued by the Human Rights Campaign and the Trans People of Color Coalition observed that the “risk factors and causes” of antitrans violence were likely rooted in “some of society’s most challenging issues.” Among these were unaffordable health care, workplace discrimination, reduced employment opportunities, and safe, inclusive schools. In other words, the life chances of many poor and working-class trans people — like all poor and working-class people — are diminished primarily because they lack the basic material needs and comforts that unions routinely provide to their members.

Indeed, queer-inclusive unions offer advantages over the paltry protections offered by federal civil rights law and enforcement mechanisms. Title VII’s prohibition on sex-based employment discrimination — which until a few years ago excluded LGBTQ workers from such protections — has historically been interpreted as guaranteeing a narrow formal legal equality. Although this rendering of equality was far from preordained — in contrast to mere legal protection from discrimination, labor feminists have long advocated for a robust set of public-goods-based reforms including worker protections, living wages, and care work programs — it has come to characterize the federal civil rights regime. Furthermore, federal courts have interpreted Title VII narrowly to cases in which an employee can demonstrate evidence that an employer had engaged in discriminatory “animus” because of that employee’s protected class status (e.g., race, religion, or sex).

By conceiving of discrimination as arising less from structural economic factors and more from prejudice-based discrimination, Title VII’s impact was sharply curtailed long before the Supreme Court decided in Bostock v. Clayton County (2020) to apply its protections to LGBTQ employees. Moreover, Bostock came on the heels of the court’s anti-union decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (2018), which forced right-to-work constraints upon the country’s public-sector unions. In other words, LGBTQ employees have gained some limited rights against discrimination while losing their rights as workers. Still more, the Supreme Court appears willing to limit the impact of recent LGBTQ rights victories. This is clear given the court’s 2021 decision allowing a publicly funded Catholic social service agency to deny married gay couples seeking to foster and adopt, as well as its 2023 ruling allowing a Christian website designer to refuse service to a queer couple planning their wedding. Whichever path the court takes on future LGBTQ rights issues — either a narrow formal equality route or an overtly anti-LGBTQ one — its decisions stand to do more harm than good to working-class people, queer or otherwise.

Unions often have the power and will to deliver what civil rights law cannot. In recent years, many locals have added “gender identity and expression” and “sexual orientation” to existing antidiscrimination contract language. Union members within the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Union (AFSCME), for example, have negotiated over one thousand contracts with such protections. Rather than relying on the courts where the deck has been stacked against antidiscrimination claims, queer union members benefit from grievance procedures and the power of their membership, which can pressure employers to rectify abuse. Such provisions for trans workers actually predate national civil rights protections by several decades. In the 1980s, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) in New Jersey negotiated antidiscrimination contract language on “change of sex” after a trans worker experienced harassment after gender-affirmation surgery. Even earlier, in 1975, a trans worker in Lordstown, Ohio, successfully sued General Motors for mistreatment, using a new UAW attorney services benefit. Today’s unions also furnish LGBTQ workers with additional benefits. Recently, the United Steel Workers (USW) eliminated restrictions on gender-affirming care from its health insurance plan, giving union members and their families access to potentially life-saving — and, in some cases, expensive — treatment.

Deep Ties: Queer Workers and the Labor Movement

Although the labor movement’s attention to LGBTQ issues may seem like a contemporary phenomenon, such integration extends back to the early twentieth century. The late historian Allan Bérubé traversed North America, teaching activists about the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, which by the early 1930s was an increasingly racially desegregated union with both communist ties and a gay-friendly culture. As the gay and lesbian rights movement gradually garnered national attention throughout the mid-century, independent queer labor organizations and caucuses within existing union locals were formed — but not without a struggle. The independent New York–based Gay Teachers Association, for example, spent several years pressuring the United Federation of Teachers to simply advertise their existence to the membership. By the 1980s, workers in publishing — among them employees at the Village Voice — as well as workers in government, food services, retail, and education were organizing caucuses within their locals and fighting successfully for antidiscrimination protections, HIV/AIDS education trainings, and domestic partner benefits. Recognizing the growing importance of queer workers’ needs within the labor movement, the AFL-CIO created Pride at Work in 1998, which now functions alongside other AFL-CIO constituency groups, including the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

For decades, queer-sympathetic workers’ organizations have thwarted the religious right’s dual assault on minority rights and labor power. Throughout the 1970s, the nascent religious right was orchestrated by those like Christian political strategist Paul Weyrich and industrial leaders in oil, alcohol, and aluminum manufacturing. This coalition aimed to convince Christian blue-collar voters that the Democratic Party’s New Deal and Great Society social and economic reforms had undermined so-called traditional conceptions of morality and liberty. Searching for a scapegoat, the religious right settled on the gay and lesbian movement, decrying its early civil rights victories as a sign of the country’s cultural decay (other targets included desegregation policies and abortion rights). In 1977, the ominously named “Save Our Children Inc.” succeeded in overturning a Miami-Dade County antidiscrimination ordinance, thus inaugurating the religious right’s antiqueer crusade.

Inspired by this victory, California state senator John Briggs — an infamously anti-labor lawmaker — introduced Proposition 6, a 1978 ballot initiative that would have banned queer people from teaching in public schools. The Briggs Initiative spurred gay and lesbian workers to action, forming groups like the Workers Conference to Defeat the Briggs Initiative, which brought together rank-and-file members of the AFT in California as well as the UAW, the USW, the Teamsters, the Culinary Workers Union, and the American Postal Workers Union. Eventually, regional labor groups, including California’s AFL-CIO council, the San Francisco Labor Council, and the California Teachers Association joined the fight. This coalition of queer union members, trade union leaders, and advocacy groups defeated the Briggs Initiative, which they perceived as an attack not just on queer workers but also on public sector workers more broadly.

Unions made a similar difference in defeating conservative groups in the 1990s. Clashes over queer rights erupted in once-prosperous Pacific Northwestern towns, devastated by the decline of lumber and other major industries. Conflicts over antidiscrimination laws were catalyzed when cosmopolitan middle- and upper-class families emigrated to these towns from cities like Seattle and San Francisco. The liberal cultural values of these wealthier transplants were easily conflated with the adverse effect that their homeownership had on the property taxes and rents of poorer longtime residents. Opportunistic conservative politicians made quick use of metastasizing resentments, sparking outrage over multicultural school curriculums and antidiscrimination ordinances. In what has been erroneously termed a “culture war” by some, attention was deflected from the economic roots of class conflict, particularly declining union job prospects in the lumber industry. When state ballot initiatives preempting local antidiscrimination ordinances began to pop up around the region, union density played a significant role in voter outcomes. In right-to-work Colorado, progressive groups did not prevail. But in Oregon, workers led by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503 contributed to the defeat of a 1992 antigay initiative.

Scapegoating at the State Level

Organized labor continues to play a crucial role in combatting state-level assaults on LGBTQ rights. Just as John Briggs forged an anti-labor agenda with a ban on queer public-school teachers, Republican Florida governor Ron DeSantis has demonized queer and queer-friendly public-school teachers while undermining the state’s public sector unions. The DeSantis agenda has been characterized by its aggressive policing of public-school curriculums and library holdings, particularly materials dealing with sex education and LGBTQ and civil rights history. While Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act (popularly known as “Don’t Say Gay”) immediately became national news, less coverage has been devoted to the governor’s support for a “paycheck protection act.” The latter prohibits employers from taking union dues directly out of members’ paychecks and outright eliminates public sector unions that fall below 60 percent membership. Notably, unions representing police officers, firefighters, and correctional and probation officers — that is, unions that tend to endorse Republican Party officials — are exempt from the law.

DeSantis ally Christopher Rufo has spelled out the overall strategy quite clearly. In Rufo’s words, the goal of anti-LGBTQ legislation and the foreboding rhetoric of “grooming” schoolteachers is designed to create “universal public school distrust.” If voters can be convinced that unionized teachers and public schools threaten childhood innocence, public education and progressive unions alike can be more effectively dismantled. Recognizing the existential threat posed by the DeSantis administration, Florida’s unions have pushed back against both anti-LGBTQ curriculum policies and laws that weaken public sector unions. At its 2023 annual gathering, National Education Association delegates devised a plan to address anti-LGBTQ bills and to protect queer teachers and students in states like Florida.

The Bottom Line Is Still the Corporate Line

It is true that many US corporations have offered inclusive benefits and protections to queer white-collar workers for decades, long before many unions extended similar benefits. Businesses have also pressured governments to expand civil rights laws. For example, 125 major US companies organized as the Business Coalition for Workplace Fairness advocated for national civil rights legislation over two decades ago. Occasionally, those corporations have even threatened to withhold investments from cities and states that oppose LGBTQ rights.

However, the limits of corporate benevolence for LGBTQ workers further underscore the advantages of a labor-backed progressive response. Not long ago, there remained some hope for the power of corporate-induced boycotts. North Carolina’s Republican governor Pat McCrory lost his 2016 reelection bid just months after signing an antitrans bathroom bill, which had led several large employers to cancel business expansions in the state. Fearing economic backlash from activist CEOs and chambers of commerce, governors became cautious about signing legislation that excluded trans athletes from competition or banned gender-affirming care. Pointing to the bottom line, companies stressed the business advantages of LGBTQ diversity, noting queer employees’ alleged aptitude for pursuing untapped consumer markets. Suddenly, none of that seems to matter. Hundreds of antitrans bills have been filed since 2021 and dozens have been passed.

It appears that, once antitrans policies spread beyond a few conservative states, the threat of corporate-led boycotts receded. After all, corporations tend to seek out favorable “business climates,” which are plentiful among right-wing states that have weaker unions and lower taxes. Defending its decision to move operations to Tennessee despite the state’s recently enacted anti-LGBTQ legislation, Oracle Software executives reasoned that the company itself would create an inclusive environment for state residents. While the company’s policies might benefit a tiny portion of the state’s workforce covered by Oracle’s in-house diversity, inclusion, and equity policies, the vast majority of Tennesseans stand to gain nothing.

Overall, the pursuit of profits has stalled corporate America’s capacity and motivation to thwart anti-LGBTQ policies. Again, Starbucks offers an example. As baristas have challenged corporate leadership, the supposedly trans-inclusive coffee chain has ominously suggested that unionized workers jeopardize the company’s much-lauded gender-affirming health care coverage. In this sense, trans issues today are used by some nominally progressive corporations against worker solidarity much in the way bosses have historically stoked racial animosity among workers.

Affinity or Solidarity?

Whether one looks at history, demographics, or legal developments, it is clear that the fates of most queer people in this country are entwined with those of working and poor people more generally. Two points are worth reemphasizing here: this entwined fate stems from the fact that most queer people are working class or poor, and queer people have historically made excellent scapegoats for those seeking to raze social welfare and organized labor. On the other hand, the category “LGBTQ” is heterogenous in the manner that all identity-based population categories are. LGBTQ people run the gamut, meaning that a fraction of queer people are corporate executives, small-business owners, or defined by some other variant of capitalist, managerial, or petit-bourgeois status. In addition, national queer advocacy organizations are dependent on donations from businesses and wealthy queer people and their allies, which usually delimits those organizations’ agendas to a narrow support for civil rights. While these truths are perhaps easily comprehended on their own, together they can create enormous contradictions for those who would pursue a queer working-class politics.

Although often celebrated as an early moment of queer-worker solidarity, the Coors boycott offers a cautionary tale. In 1974, Teamsters leader Allan Baird led Northern Californian unionized beer distributors in struggle against a recalcitrant Coors management that refused to expand contract benefits. Sensing a possible collaboration, Baird brought Bay Area gay activists into the union’s boycott activities by highlighting Coors’s right-wing political advocacy — Joseph Coors provided seed money to the anti-LGBTQ Heritage Foundation — and discriminatory workplace practices. This collaboration proved to be symbiotic: the boycott created relationships that spurred unions to implement antidiscrimination contract protections and persuaded gay rights activists to organize against antilabor ballot measures.

A few years into Baird’s alliance-building project, it became apparent that queer advocates could be wooed just as easily by corporate “allies.” Realizing the threat that displeased gay consumers posed to the company’s bottom line, Coors quickly pivoted, adding sexual orientation protections to its companywide antidiscrimination policy in 1978 and donating to AIDS charities throughout the 1980s. By the end of the 1990s, Coors had implemented domestic partner benefits, contributed large donations to queer nonprofits, and hired gay liaisons, including future vice president Dick Cheney’s daughter, Mary Cheney, to launder its image. To the Teamsters’ dismay, Coors once again flows from queer bars’ beer taps. Ironically, what made the Coors boycott so successful — that is, the fact that a company’s policies toward queer people could mobilize consumers to action — is what broke it apart.

Instead of conceiving of LGBTQ issues as those particular to a small fraction of workers, we might think creatively about organized labor’s capacities for promoting both equal treatment and general welfare. In some instances, union advocacy for public-goods spending could benefit many trans people even more than trans-specific reforms do. Take the example of public transit and sex markers in Philadelphia. From 1981 through 2013, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s (SEPTA) monthly transit passes were marked with a male or female sticker, which caused problems for trans women like Philadelphia-based trans rights advocate Charlene Arcila. Whether Arcila presented an M-stamped or F-stamped pass, she was turned away by bus drivers who were tasked with interpreting her sex. Importantly, SEPTA’s motivation for implementing sex markers had nothing to do with trans-identified riders. The sex designations were an anti-fraud measure, designed to prevent revenue loss by stopping married (cis) men and women from sharing passes. For decades, SEPTA workers organized in the Transport Workers Union have rallied for increased transit spending and against efforts to privatize transit lines. Additional funding could reduce the pressure to squeeze every last cent out of riders.

Instead of additional funding, however, a trans-specific reform was implemented that did less for many trans Philadelphians than a public-goods approach might have. SEPTA’s 2013 move to scrap its sex markers was fundamentally disconnected from any investment in its infrastructure as evidenced by the system’s current financial crisis. So, trans riders are no longer subject to humiliating onboarding experiences, but all riders — trans and cis alike — now suffer under the collapse of the poorest big city in America’s public transit system.

Queer Working-Class Politics in Perilous Times

The current state of Starbucks unionization offers a concluding perspective on queer working-class politics. The thrill of watching unionized coffee shops rapidly dot a map of the United States has been replaced by the pain of witnessing the setbacks and stalemates Starbucks workers have endured. According to journalist Steven Greenhouse, Starbucks executives have overwhelmed the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) by violating so many labor laws that the board simply cannot keep up with its caseload (penalties for breaking labor law are often puny). This all comes at a time when the board itself is headed by a progressive general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, whose pro-worker agenda has been impeded by the NLRB’s budgetary crisis. That crisis has sapped the agency’s ability to run union elections effectively and to protect unionizing workers who have been unlawfully terminated. Workers could soon meet an even greater challenge as the Supreme Court hears cases concerning the constitutionality of the NLRB.

In this daunting moment, it is no wonder that many labor advocates find hope in young, diverse workers organizing behemoths from Starbucks to Amazon. However, those who are inspired by today’s queer working-class politics would benefit from thinking structurally and historically about the opportunities and pitfalls that such a politics entails. The slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” directs one’s attention not just to the particulars of one group of workers’ hardships but also to the fundamental class interests shared by LGBTQ and all other workers.