By NILES ZEE
Special to the Labor Tribune
The Third Annual Transgender Spectrum Conference, hosted by Metro Trans Umbrella Group, Missouri PROMO, and Transparent Saint Louis, took place at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work last month.
The Conference included academic presentations, storytelling sessions, film screenings and technical trainings encompassing the entire spectrum of transgender identity.
Laura Kelley, a union representative for UFCW Local 655 and co-chair of OUTreach, the national United Food and Commercial Workers Constituency Group for LGBTQ Partners, and Alex Lange, also a UFCW Local 655 union representative, hosted a session called “Building Power for Transgender Workers through Unions.” Kelley is an out lesbian who is cisgender (her gender assigned at birth matches her identity), in a traditionally straight, cisgender, and male dominated union and workforce.
LOCAL 655 ON CUTTING EDGE
The session was hosted to educate the transgender community and allies about workplace protections that unions provide. While some unions have had a mixed approach to LGBTQ rights, Local 655 has been on the cutting edge, providing workplace protections for transgender members.
Undoubtedly, union workers and LGBTQ activists have long faced common struggles and common adversaries.
Kelley and Lange 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 employment opportunities, or if they are employed, assistance organizing their workplaces.
UNIONS MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Worker’s Education Society member and conference attendee Elise, a transgender woman, commented about the issues, saying, “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. 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 full-time and in this union, I could go to the doctor again. That's what a difference a union makes to trans people.”
HER OWN STORY
Kelley had her own story to tell as well.
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 her union sisters and brothers were contractually entitled to.
Presenting her Iowa marriage certificate, “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, 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.
STARTED TO CRY
“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.”
The Transgender Spectrum conference was segmented by a lunchtime demonstration. A student-led protest was mounted 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.
Kelley, now fully comfortable discussing her experiences as an out-union member, was sent to a conference on transgender issues a few years ago by UFCW Local 655. There she gained the competency to engage the transgender community about unions. She now provides training around the nation on behalf of the UFCW for other union locals about issues transgender people face in the workplace.
Kelley reached out to Saint Louis Metro Trans Umbrella Group (MTUG), asking them to provide Trans 101 training at her union local. In return, MTUG invited Kelley to present at the third annual Transgender Spectrum Conference.
“If you discriminate about bathrooms in one of our shops, we are going to have a problem,” Kelley said during the conference presentation.
“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 added.
To the session attendees, 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.”
UNIONS A PROTECTIVE FORCE
Kelly 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, a.k.a the Bathroom Bill.”
UFCW Local 655, representing over 10,400 workers in the greater St. Louis area, is a “Powerful voice in for the transgender community in politics,” something Kelley says she is very proud of.
“President Cook spoke out against Missouri’s SJR 39 ‘religious liberty’ bill, which would have targeted LGBTQ people if passed,” she added.
This is something all unions can and should do, especially considering the attitudes that will exist in the new administration that will take charge in January.