If Supreme Court Sides Against Unions, It's Bad for LGBT Workers

LGBT Unions Op-Ed

At a time when the balance in our economy has never been more out of whack, the ability of working people to stand up to powerful corporate interests is once again under attack. This week the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear they would like to once again side with those who already hold too much power.

The court is preparing to overturn four decades of labor law in a case backed by powerful right-wing foundations. The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, is the latest in a series of attacks on working people and their right to band together and form a union that will ensure they get the wages and benefits they need to sustain a family.

Let's be clear: No working person in America is required to join a union. No union member or non–union member is required to pay for union-backed political activity they disagree with. That is a ruse being used by right-wing forces to defund the progressive agenda supported by public employees and the unions they have chosen to represent them in the public sphere.

We must also remember just how important the political activity done by and on behalf of those who do choose to join unions and who support that progressive agenda truly is for every community across our country.

America's LGBTQ community is no exception. Community members work hard as teachers in our public schools, as nurses in public hospitals, as librarians in public libraries, and as social workers in every corner of our country.

The LGBTQ community also understands the vital role public employees and the unions they belong to have played in our historic struggles for full citizenship. We know that we could not have won our victories without those union members’ help. They stood with us long before so many others joined the cause.

In 1970, just a year after Stonewall, the members of the American Federation of Teachers passed a resolution calling for an end to antigay discrimination. In 1982, the members of AFSCME — the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union — passed a resolution calling for full civil rights for gay and lesbian citizens that became a model not just for unions but for city and county governments across the country as well. The members of the Service Employees International Union have helped that group become a leader in the fight to secure full health benefits for transgender workers, an effort that is backed by the AFL-CIO and most of its affiliates.

During the dark years of the AIDS epidemic, unions representing teachers and health care workers took the lead in developing workplace standards that protected the ill and educated the public. In the 1990s, for example, the AFT and its members raised millions of dollars to assist African-American teachers unions in the struggle to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS and SEIU produced trainings and videos to educate their members and the public.

And in recent years, when same-sex marriage was put on state ballots, public employees and their unions were fully engaged, staffing phone banks and pounding the pavement to ensure the right of every American to marry the person they love.

Even today, marriage equality hasn't resulted in full equality for LGBTQ working people. In the majority of states, you can get married on Saturday, post photos on Facebook on Sunday, and have a pink slip waiting for you at work Monday morning. But in every state and territory of the country, a union contract offers protections that meet or exceed any existing law at the state or local level.

By overturning the 1977 precedent set by a unanimous court, the current conservative majority on the Supreme Court will give antiworker forces a victory they have sought for decades that could ultimately end the ability for public-sector working people to form a union. At the same time, they will deal a devastating blow to teachers fighting for smaller classes, nurses fighting for better staffing levels in hospitals, and public safety employees fighting for adequate and safe equipment as they do their vitally important jobs.

That is what the billionaires who are funding this court challenge want to destroy. They want to destroy the ability of workers to increase their wages and improve their benefits. They also want to undermine the ability of public employee unions to fight for all working people. They want to ensure that public employee unions do not have the resources to fight other battles, including ongoing struggles to save Social Security and Medicare, to increase the minimum wage, to protect the rights of immigrants, and to ensure that America has a balanced system of taxation.

Corporate and right-wing forces have already largely succeeded in destroying unions in the private sector. Now only public-sector workers stand in their way.

It is those public-sector workers — educators, snowplow drivers, firefighters, and emergency personnel — who are now on the front lines of the battle to preserve some balance in our national life. The LGBTQ community will stand with them, just as they stood with us in so many previous battles. Let us hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will side with working people rather than the forces who are trying to destroy their right to a voice.

JERAME DAVIS is the executive director of Pride at Work, an LGBT constituency group of organized labor. Find out more at PrideAtWork.org, and follow Davis on Twitter @Jerame.