Issue 10.1-10.2 | Fall 2011/Spring 2012 / Guest edited by Joseph N. DeFilippis, Lisa Duggan, Kenyon Farrow, and Richard Kim

Equality with Power: Fighting for Economic Justice at Work

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What Is To Be Done?

So where does all this leave queer interests and politics? When planning how to attack the abuse of queer people at the workplace, we cannot and should not develop an agenda that looks only at protections that are specific to queer people. Those protections will fail all too many of us. What we achieve may be greater equality, but only on a sinking ship. And while we know that even on the Titanic equality makes a big difference, it is not enough. The ship is sinking fast and into deep cold waters.

In short, if queer workers need a measure of economic security to live their lives openly and freely, the queer movement needs to join the battles over power in the workplace. Good cause employment should be an assumed standard, as it had become for many years in France. The question is how best to achieve that goal. There are many facets to the workers’ movements of this country today. They include a range of strategies, forms, and institutions. Some revolve around, or at least involve, unions. Others, particularly those concerning immigrant workers at the lowest ends of the workplace hierarchy, come from workers’ centers and their allies. In the wake of the Obama election, the rallying cry for labor was the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would have allowed workers to form a union by card check and would make it much easier for unions to reach a first contract with recalcitrant employers.[9]

In general, queer activists need to look at the broader question of how to build the collective power of workers if we really want to see queer workers, including factory workers, janitors, home health aides, teachers, actors, musicians, and yes, even lawyers, have some ability to control our own lives and have enough of a measure of independence to live our lives as we see fit. This is not a utopian argument. It is a pragmatic argument based on the recognition that even the best efforts of our national and local organizations cannot compensate for the erosion of worker power in addressing the day-to-day needs of the vast majority of members of our community who are not independently wealthy. If we think we can make a separate deal for our protection and not participate in the larger effort to give workers a meaningful voice in the workplace, we will fail for all but a few. It is and will remain cold comfort for a queer worker that she or he is being let go into a failing economy along with straight coworkers in order to increase company profits and not because she or he is gay or trans. And it would be a cruel hoax to crow about inclusive antidiscrimination laws if we were to tolerate a shop floor reality in the workplace that honors those laws more in the breach than in the observance.

At the same time, when queer organizations participate in the broader struggle for workers’ rights and power, we gain valuable allies in struggles over specifically LGBT issues. The LGBT labor organization Pride at Work has set an example among national LGBT groups for this type of alliance building. Pride at Work not only seeks to address the needs of queer workers within the labor movement, it is also part of the labor movement and part of the broader social justice and antiwar movements in the United States. It builds recognition of common cause among groups in these movements, and in doing so, it garners support for more specifically queer concerns from others. For example, its work in support of a graduate student union at the University of Michigan, led by a trans man, helped yield health care coverage for some critical medical needs of transgender workers.

More recently, in Santa Clara, California, Pride at Work has been working with the union UNITE HERE as part of a coalition of community groups, including faith groups, labor, people of color organizations, and other progressive groups to support workers’ rights and an organizing campaign at a Hyatt hotel. A key part of that battle has been to force Hyatt to live up to its claims, noted on the HRC Corporate Equality Index, that it honors the rights of transgender workers. Hyatt has begun to respond. This campaign demonstrates the synergistic potential of truly collaborative work on the local level when labor and queer activists recognize each other as integral parts of the community and of any truly progressive agenda.[10]

In the last year, some national queer organizations have started to acknowledge the centrality of workers’ rights, including the right to organize. An online queer campaign called “Join the Impact” is organizing a teach-in on three pieces of legislation, including ENDA and EFCA.[11] There are countless other examples of alliance building between labor and queer groups on the local level, many involving LGBT caucuses of unions. Those of us who care about workplace justice and economic security should be following this lead.[12]

The Workplace and the Welfare State

After over 15 years as a welfare rights lawyer, teacher, and activist, I know that any essay on the subject of employment cannot be complete without a discussion of the welfare state (a subject also addressed by other essays in this journal issue). I believe that queer politics might gain crucial insight through application of the insights in the classic book on the functions of welfare by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Regulating the Poor.[13] Piven and Cloward argue that welfare state supports (unemployment insurance, social security, Medicaid and Medicare, but also specifically the aid to individuals and families called “welfare”) provide some independence to workers, that then strengthens their hand in negotiations with employers. Welfare gives workers bargaining power, because it provides the economic safety net that allows them to refuse inadequate or abusive terms of employment. This bargaining power affects both individual and collective bargaining. Owners and managers understand this principle and therefore fight to eliminate welfare state supports and entitlements. They do not want to pay for these cushions through taxes or other levies, as they openly assert, but they also want to eliminate the cushions that provide their workers with bargaining power.

The important point for queer activists is that we must all fight to build up this country’s ragged welfare state. Unemployment benefits are all too often meager, and they are simply unavailable to large categories of workers, including those whose work is sporadic or erratic.

Administrative barriers bar large numbers of workers from access to benefits that are only short term at best. What is a worker supposed to do when those benefits run out? The Obama administration’s stimulus legislation included an extension of unemployment benefits and inducements for states to extend benefits further and to expand access to benefits to categories of workers who are currently excluded.[14] Queer groups should be part of the efforts to get states to go along with these extensions and expansions of access to unemployment benefits.

In addition, what is commonly called “public assistance” has been under a constant assault since it achieved a moderate degree of fairness in the early 1970s. The gross inadequacy of the retirement system in this country leaves many queers, especially those who live alone or who are childless or disabled, in a particularly vulnerable position as they age. Queers cannot afford to see battles over these and related worker protections as someone else’s agenda. The more unavailable, limited, and abusive these already meager programs are, the more we are at the mercy of our employers—and we should not rely on the kindness of bosses.


If we are serious about creating workplaces where queer people can earn a decent living, and with it the freedom to live our lives as queer people, we are going to have to join the struggles of workers generally, and not limit ourselves only to equality without power. Equality is a critical goal, but the fulfillment of the goal of equality depends on greater workplace power. Equality is just not enough to put food on the table and pay the rent. Without the ability to meet these basic needs reliably and without submission to workplace abuse, queer workers will remain all too dependent on the kindness of those who have never acted with our best interests in mind.

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  1. H.R. 1409, 111th Congress (2009). [Return to text]
  2. UNITE HERE has launched a “Sleep with the Right People” campaign that seeks to further LGBT rights while supporting the rights of hotel workers to organize. This campaign has worked with queer groups to target the Manchester Hyatt in San Diego, over its treatment of its own workers and for contributing to the supporters of Proposition 8, the constitutional ban on recognizing same-sex marriages in California. The author would like to thank Jeremy Bishop and Jo Kenny of Pride at Work for their insights and updates on the activities of Pride at Work. [Return to text]
  3. See Join the Impact website. [Return to text]
  4. See Pride at Work website. [Return to text]
  5. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Regulating the Poor (New York: Pantheon, 1971). [Return to text]
  6. See National Employment Law Project website for descriptions of the unemployment insurance provisions in the federal stimulus legislation and efforts to get states to extend benefits and expand access. [Return to text]