Don’t Agonize, Organize

By Liz Massey, December 2015 Issue.

LGBT workplace equality is, without a doubt, the next frontier of queer liberation.

There are dozens of independent advocacy groups dedicated to focusing on this effort, and there are an increasing number of company-sponsored employee resource groups (ERGs) designed to build up pride within businesses.

But what about LGBT issues within unions, which have historically been the other key player in worker-management relations?

For a look at the state of LGBT issues within unions, Echo spoke with Jim Volpe, chair, and Michael Broadhead, co-chair, of Pride At Work’s newly organized Arizona chapter.

Echo: Tell us about what the Pride At Work organization is and why an Arizona chapter is being formed.

Volpe: Pride At Work is a national constituency group of the AFL-CIO union dedicated to workplace equality for LGBT workers. We seek to gain union contract language and promote inclusive company policies that prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, race, sex, age or disability. Our membership is made up of union as well as non-union members and our allies. Our goal is to comprise as large a diverse representation of the workforce as possible.

Echo: What are some of the primary advocacy goals of Pride At Work that are aimed at promoting workplace equality?

Broadhead: Pride At Work was one of the first organizations to endorse the Equality Act that was just introduced in U.S. Congress. The Equality Act seeks to expand LGBT protections to cover employment, housing, public accommodations, education, federal funding, credit and more by amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as several other civil rights laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and others.

Volpe: In the interim of the successful passing of federal legislation supporting full equality, Pride at Work - Arizona is working diligently to acquire specific union contract language guaranteeing protections from these types of discrimination. For the last several decades it is only through union contracts and company policies that many have fought so hard to achieve that many LGBT employees have been provided equality protections – not federal laws.

Echo: How are labor unions influencing the contemporary American workplace?

Broadhead: Corporations tend to be ahead of state and federal governments in nondiscrimination policies, because they want to attract and maintain the best possible workers. Many of the changes achieved at corporations to protect LGBT employees or increase their benefits, have occurred primarily because of employees and/or their unions speaking up and presenting compelling evidence that the changes would be good for the company and good for employees.

Echo: Describe the range of professions with unions that could represent an LGBT employee.

Volpe: Unions can and should represent workers in all professions, from hotel housekeepers to professional athletes. As industries change, the need for unions to represent different workers also changes. Our union, TWU, has historically represented transit, railroad and airline workers, but we now also represent casino dealers and bikeshare workers.

Echo: What are some key benefits for LGBT employees who join a labor union?

Broadhead: Unions help provide workplace protection against discrimination, but union workers are also likely to have better wages, working conditions, job security and benefits than non-union workers in the same profession. Recent estimates state that on average, non-union workers earn 27 percent less than union workers doing the same job. In workplace protection and quality of life, there is real power in collective bargaining for LGBT workers.

Echo: One of the potential outcomes during a collective bargaining negotiation is the need to call a strike. Is that something an LGBT union member should prepare himself or herself for?

Broadhead: Strikes are always used as a last resort. Although they are rare, it is up to any union to always remind its members about that reality and for members to prepare in case one does occur. Unions and companies have become better at working to resolve their differences and prevent strikes. Strikes were much more common decades ago.

Echo: Is there anything else we haven’t discussed that you’d like to mention?

Broadhead: When you become a union member, whether you are LGBT or not, it is an opportunity to learn what a collective voice/effort is all about. You learn how to participate in the process of working to achieve what you earn and what your benefits are, rather than being a non-participant in that process.

Volpe: A safe and inclusive workplace is a more productive and healthy workplace and through the advocacy of our Pride At Work - Arizona chapter, we hope to improve working conditions for all Arizonans.

For more information about Pride at Work – Arizona, including upcoming events and membership, visit

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