“What we desire for ourselves, we wish for all.” That’s what Sussanne Skidmore’s t-shirt read at this year’s Vancouver Pride Parade. For the Secretary-Treasurer of the BC Federation of Labour, the message was more than fitting. In fact, the famous quote from JS Woodsworth, a labour activist and founder of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, signals the moral foundation of the Canadian labour movement.
“It’s a message of inclusion that underpins the work of the BC Fed, and it’s as important today as when JS Woodsworth uttered those words almost a century ago,” explains Skidmore. Marching next to her was Laird Cronk, president of the Federation, dressed for the occasion in a rainbow-coloured tutu. Together, Skidmore and Cronk led the multi-union Pride delegation, including more than 50 UFCW members and staff.
Skidmore is the first openly queer senior executive in the history of the province’s largest labour organization. “Representation matters,” she asserts. “To achieve this recognition at the BC Fed together with a great listener and ally like Laird is a great honour. As a queer woman, it is important to have a seat at the table.”
Historically, unions have fought to give voice to the voiceless and a seat to those who are not invited to the table. That’s why queer rights are workers’ rights. “Fighting for fairness means advocating for higher wages, better benefits and greater job security for our members, but it also means taking on those larger social justices struggles that affect our communities,” says President Kim Novak. “Affordable child care, pay equity, same-sex marriage— these are intrinsically about fighting for what is right. Unions couldn’t be true to their mission without being strong allies to the LGBTQ2SI movement.”
Although the social justice mission of the labour movement is inherently aligned with the struggle for justice by lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, two-spirit and intersex (LGBTQ2I) communities, the workplace has not always been safe for these workers. But the fight for workers’ rights and LGBTQ2SI rights are nevertheless intertwined and in recent years, a strong alliance has emerged.
Around the world, the queer community has faced open and often violent discrimination in the last century. Until 1969, homosexual acts between consenting adults were illegal in Canada and persecution of queer people by law enforcement was widespread. That year marked the birth of the gay liberation movement with the Stonewall Riots in New York City. After violent police raids on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, the queer community turned to direct action to combat discrimination and the modern fight for LGBTQ2SI rights in North America began.
In Canada, the nascent gay liberation movement connected with trade unions early on, embracing the strategies of unions and other equity-seeking groups. According to Ken Popert, a founding member of Gay Alliance Towards Equality (GATE) in the early 1970s, there was a significant overlap between the gay liberation movement and other social movements, including “women’s lib” and the labour movement. Many gay activists, he writes, learned to organize from trade unionists and left wing political parties.
Another early example of queer activists connecting with unions in common struggle was the 1973 fight to include sexual orientation in the City of Toronto’s anti-discrimination policy. After council rejected their appeal, GATE turned to the city’s unions for support. CUPE locals 79 and 43 wrote a letter in favour of their cause—a radical move at the time: “The workers, like gay men, knew what it meant to be engaged in ceaseless struggle against powerful and antagonistic forces,” Popert writes. “Like gays, they were constantly being shat on by the powers that control the media and most other institutions.”
By 1981, Canada had a Stonewall of its own after Toronto police raided four bathhouses and arrested 268 gay men. The incident marked one of the largest mass arrests in the country and resulted in intensified LGBTQ2SI advocacy. A few years later, after pressure from queer union members, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) amended its constitution to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. More progress was made in 1989, when the Hospital Employees Union in British Columbia gained recognition for same-sex benefits in its collective agreement with health employers. Other unions soon began negotiating similar language, motivated by a CLC resolution calling on affiliated unions to make this a bargaining priority.
By the early 1990s, the focus of the queer movement turned to constitutional recognition of LGBTQ2SI rights, including benefits coverage for same-sex couples. The labour movement was a key ally in this fight. Many court battles were fought, often with help from unions, over pension eligibility and extended health and life insurance benefits; other cases focused on immigration, adoption and hate crime. Finally, in 1995 the Supreme Court of Canada recognized sexual orientation as a ground for protection from discrimination under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A decade later, Canada legalized same-sex marriage, becoming the fourth country in the world to do so.
Since then, Canada has evolved into one of the most queer-friendly countries, with 74 percent of Canadians asserting they know someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and five percent identifying as queer. “Our members have lives and identities that extend beyond the workplace: they are mothers, immigrants, people of colour, queer,” comments President Novak. “We have a historic alliance with the LGBTQ2SI movement in that we share common goals for fairness and justice. While the labour movement has certainly been an ally in many victories, we haven’t always been there for queer workers, and there is always more we can do to address homophobia and ensure that unions are inclusive and welcoming to all.”
“At some places I have worked at it’s been hard,” comments Raven Morningstar, a queer shop steward at Save-On-Foods in Whitehorse. “You don’t really want to say anything to anyone about who you are because you can be discriminated against. At my last job, there was a gay person who came out and he ended up losing his job.” Although discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal, it still happens, both at the workplace and elsewhere. That’s when belonging to a union can really make a difference.
“Working at Save-On-Foods you can be who you are. I’m more open here and I’m not looked at any different. That’s thanks to the union,” explains Morningstar. In August, she joined 50 UFCW members—queer workers and allies—who marched alongside other unions in the Vancouver Pride parade. For Pride this year, UFCW 1518 also hosted OUTreach, a committee dedicated to building mutual support between UFCW locals across North America and the queer community. At their annual meeting, held at the union office in New Westminster, the group highlighted intersex and two-spirit issues as well as the campaign to end the stigma of HIV.
“It is part of our mandate to support our queer workers and community,” explains Emmanuelle Lopez, UFCW Canada national representative and founding member of OUTreach. “We know a certain percentage of our membership identifies as LGBTQ2SI and that workers have multifaceted lives and struggles. That’s why intersectionality is essential to the work of the union.” Since 2010, OUTreach has been collaborating with Egale, a legal non-profit that helped pass Bill C-16, which added gender expression and gender identity as protected grounds to the Canadian Human Rights Act in 2016. Under their guidance, UFCW OUTreach has created educational and advocacy programming and resources for union members with a focus on advancing transgender rights and passing legislation to protect queer workers.
“Working at the national level we have the ability to address legislative barriers,” adds Lopez. Indeed, additions to the Human Rights Act extend to discrimination in the workplace, providing leverage for unions during negotiations. “On my very first day at this store, I was called a fag,” recounts Taylor Wilson, a member from Save-On-Foods in Campbell River. “It was said jokingly and not as a derogatory term so I decided not to file a grievance. But my union representative was very supportive and encouraged me to say something. It was powerful to know that I could say something.” During the last round of bargaining with Save-On-Foods, gender identity and gender expression were added to the no-discrimination language in the collective agreement. Many other 1518 collective agreements now contain similar no-discrimination clauses.
Advocating for the rights of LGBTQ2SI members and demonstrating solidarity is an important way for unions to support queer members. “It sends a message that you are going to be accepted,” Wilson says. “As a union, that’s something positive to stand up for, that no matter who I am I know they accept me.”
In the 50 years since the Stonewall Riots, LGBTQ2SI communities have won many victories—victories that would not have been possible without the organizing and financial assistance of the labour movement. Anti-discrimination legislation, including pay equity and employment equity; same-sex benefits in collective agreements for partners and families; the right to harassment-free workplaces; and legal recognition of same-sex marriage are just some of the battles that were collectively won. But there is still more work to be done.
That’s why the BC Federation of Labour has made a formal commitment to diversity and inclusion, supporting a range of LGBTQ2SI advocacy initiatives. “Our focus now is on those in the LGBTQ community who are not yet free to express themselves,” says Skidmore. “The trans community in particular continues to face discrimination at work and in the community.” One important initiative is the BC Fed’s campaign to reverse the ban on donating blood, bone marrow and organs imposed on men and trans women who have had sex with men. The ban is discriminatory, Skidmore explains, because the criteria are based on sexual orientation rather than high-risk behaviors, perpetuating the stigma towards these marginalized groups.
With the rise of hate groups and extreme right wing politics around the world, the labour movement has an important role to play when it comes to protecting the rights of LGBTQ2SI communities. “As a social justice organization we have a responsibility to build workplaces and communities that are inclusive, supportive and safe for our LGBTQ2SI members, so we are not leaving anyone behind,” asserts President Novak. “At the end of the day, it comes down to being consistent with our values: the equal treatment we wish for ourselves, we fight for every day, for all workers.”