Time and again our nation’s unions have proven key to increasing workers’ wages, helping our economy grow, and building a strong and sustained middle class. In addition to these important benefits, new research from the Center for American Progress (CAP) and American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) reveals that union membership also plays a vital role in leveling the playing field for LGBT workers.
Last week, CAP and AFSCME produced a comprehensive report revealing that LGBT people continue to experience high rates of employment discrimination and are often not afforded equal benefits on the job. Among other findings, CAP and AFSCME found that participation in a union significantly helps solve this problem by increasing the likelihood that LGBT public sector workers will receive equal benefits on the job.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 53 percent of state and local workers with union representation had access to health care coverage for same-sex domestic partners, compared to only 17 percent of non-union state and local workers and 29 percent of private-sector workers (union and non-union).
Similarly, 57 percent of state and local union workers had access to survivor benefits in retirement for same-sex domestic partners, as compared to 47 percent of non-union public-sector workers and just 7 percent of workers in the private sector (union and non-union).
These and other workplace benefits are an important form of compensation for all workers. Health insurance, in particular, ensures families receive the healthcare they need without having to experience financial ruin to receive it. But unfortunately, public-sector workers with same-sex partners do not always have access to those benefits due to discriminatory laws and the absence of relationship recognition laws. Luckily, union membership often helps fill this gap in unequal coverage for LGBT public-sector workers.
In addition to benefits, union membership also gives LGBT public sector workers an edge in bargaining for nondiscrimination protections as part of their union contracts. Within AFSCME, the largest union of public-sector workers, more than 1,000 union contracts require nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation, with many also including gender identity language. Considering the high rates of discrimination that LGBT public-sector workers face, these protections are sorely needed given that it remains perfectly legal under federal law to fire someone because they are gay or transgender.
Despite the vital role that unions play in supporting the middle class, union membership has significantly declined over the past thirty years . This decline is troubling for many reasons, but the LGBT movement should be particularly concerned as unions help level the playing field for LGBT workers. Going forward, the LGBT movement and the Labor movement should continue to work together to advance union membership and ensure that all workers are treated equally and fairly on the job, gay or straight, transgender or not.