Big Wins for LGBT Workers in New Bloomingdale's Contract

A new union contract includes strong anti-discrimination language and benefits like paternity leave. But the vast majority of LGBT retail workers still lack basic protections.

BY Julie Bolcer

June 21 2012 4:00 AM ET

The Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 2 million workers, mostly in health care, unanimously passed a resolution at its national conference last month pledging that local groups would bargain for transgender-inclusive health coverage in their contract negotiations with businesses and employers. When unions manage to put such benefits in their contracts, it can exert a ripple effect and become the standard for other companies, although not always for the reason unions would prefer.

“A lot of nonunionized companies will copy and try and mirror those benefits in order to prevent people from trying to join a union,” said Mayne of RWDSU. “They look to companies like Bloomingdale’s, but we want people to know that the reason you have all of these protections and benefits and holidays and vacations is because the union is out there fighting for it.”

Even in locations with inclusive nondiscrimination laws, retail workers and advocates say that persistent bias still warrants enhanced protections like those in the new Bloomingdale’s contact. A report from Make the Road New York in 2010 found pervasive discrimination against transgender job-seekers despite the fact that gender identity has been covered under New York City’s human rights law for a decade. The report prompted then-attorney general Andrew Cuomo to investigate stores including American Eagle Outfitters, which agreed to drop a “personal appearance standard” requiring employees to “wear gender appropriate clothing.”

“As long as you are presenting in the way that is passable for a straight man, then you are fine,” said Desmond Anthony, the employee at Zara, where a representative was not available for comment. “I have noticed that when we do have more flamboyant, showy [applicants], they are not offered jobs. The same thing with lesbians. If lesbians are not passable as straight, or if they don’t have feminine qualities, they are not hired. A company can just say, ‘That does not fit our image.’”

The new contract at the large and iconic Bloomingdale’s could change the conditions at other retailers. Macy’s Inc., which employs a total of 166,000 workers, owns Bloomingdale’s. As a result, union leaders and advocates expressed optimism that the paternity leave benefit and enhanced nondiscrimination language would be included in the next round of contract negotiations for Macy’s stores in New York, including the world-famous flagship store in Herald Square.

“You’re successful, especially with an employer like Bloomingdale’s and a store like Macy’s, they have prestige,” said Mayne. “When you’re able to get that language in their contracts, then you can propose it for other contracts. When that employer pushes back you can say, ‘Really? You’re going to reject what an employer like Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s supported? Why wouldn’t you want to be like them?’ It makes it easier to take the argument to other employers.” 

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