Monday, October 17, 2011

Independent Labor Union Prohibits Discrimination against Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity

The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) have voted unanimously to uphold a new non-discrimination policy which contains sexual orientation and gender identity. The document, “End Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation,” was developed during the 72nd National Convention in Pittsburg between September 25 and 29.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported that the union’s decision to include these non-discrimination protects were met with full support, despite multiple opportunities for opposition to voice any contrary opinions.

The UE Mission:

A self-proclaimed “rank-and-file” democratic union, the UE remains independent of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) due to conflicting ideologies during the labor movement; UE stands firm against large corporation involvement, and prides itself on its membership-led, democratic, collective style.

One of the UE’s main issues of concern is the divisive power discrimination has upon the labor workforce. “The most powerful weapon in the bosses’ arsenal is divide-and-conquer.” The core founding principle of the union was forming an organization to unite all workers, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. They have fought for equal rights for women and against racial discrimination as a part of their equality goals.

Equal Rights for All:

The UE document listed several resolutions regarding their new non-discrimination policy. First and foremost was the call for locals to defend members of the union against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. All levels of the union are encouraged to educate their communities about the dangers of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The UE encourages their members to incorporate non-discrimination language in their contracts with employers as well as include health insurance and pension coverage for domestic partners (same or opposite sex) to ensure equal rights comparable to those of married couples.

The UE opposes marriage discrimination on the grounds that it does not provide equal protections under federal law for workers and their partners. Taking their declarations a step further, they call upon the Obama administration to issue an executive order which would prohibit discrimination against sexual orientation and gender identity within federal contracts and call on Congress to enact the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and the Respect for Marriage Act. Lastly, the UE encourages their members to support organizations and businesses who fight discrimination, and avoid those who support it.

Labor Unions and Civil Rights:

Historically, labor unions have been among the first organizations to advance non-discrimination laws for American workers. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the issue of workplace equality revolved around racial prejudices. Though most unions excluded Black workers, they eventually came to drive the civil rights movement forward. The creation of the Interracial Labor Commission in 1924, the recognition of the Black union called the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters by the AFL, and campaigns in the 1930s and 40s by black workers. In 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the AFL-CIO, saying, “When labor reaches out its hand to racial minorities, labor and minorities win. When either turns its back on the other, each loses. America loses. We all lose.”

The first African American leader of the AFL, A. Phillip Randolph, fought to desegregate factories during WWII and impacted President Roosevelt’s decision to establish the Fair Employment Practices Commission, the first federal agency which prosecuted discrimination in industry environments. Unions began campaigning for non-discrimination laws within their states prior to any federal action, and fought in numerous ways to empower Black workers.

Current Unions and ENDA:

ENDA was introduced in 1994, but never made it out of the committee stage. A new version passed in the House in 2007, but died in Senate shortly after. Currently, Representatives are pushing for a vote in the House as soon as possible in order for Senate to consider the proposal.

PFLAG has been supportive of ENDA from the beginning, publishing a statement about ENDA in 1994 and revising the statement in 2001. Jody Huckaby, the Executive Director of PFLAG National, also sent a letter to congress in 2010 highlighting the importance of the non-discrimination bill which includes all Americans. PFLAG is also a part of the United ENDA coalition.

This decision by the UE will hopefully spark union action equal to union involvement during the civil rights movement. Hard-working Americans are supporting this move toward equality, proving to others that granting equal protections to all citizens is not as controversial as it may seem.

Take Action: Reach out to the community leaders in your area. Urge them to support ENDA by talking to their companies about co-sponsoring the bill. You can also contact your federal representatives and ask them to support ENDA. As an example, here is a letter written to Congress in May by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights imploring them to co-sponsor ENDA.


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