The Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges to uphold the right of Americans to marry who they love regardless of sex is a victory that all Americans should celebrate. Ensuring all Americans have the fundamental freedom to form families and spend a lifetime together is a proud moment for this country and the fight for equality. Unfortunately, we must continue to fight for true equality for LGBTQ Americans. The next battlefield is in our workplaces.
While marriage equality may now be law of the land, the issue of workplace discrimination endures. In comparison, when bans against interracial marriage were overturned by the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia, the federal government had already outlawed employment discrimination on the basis of race. The 1964 Civil Rights Act had been passed and signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson just shy of three years earlier. Regrettably, our political leaders haven’t displayed the same kind of forward thinking when comes to LGBTQ rights.
Nationwide employment non-discrimination laws have been introduced, but never passed, in Congress since 1974. The repeat failure of Congress to protect workers regardless of sexual orientation is a stain on our democracy. The state legislative bodies that have failed to protect the rights every American have shamefully forsaken their responsibilities. They should be ashamed of their inertia. According to a 2013 YouGov poll, many Americans believe that such workplace discrimination laws have already passed. The UFCW has supported both federal and state legislation that would outlaw discrimination against LGBTQ workers for years. Since our leaders won’t act, our union—and many others—have been determined to protect our LGBTQ coworkers at work.
Right now in the 29 states where it’s legal to be fired for being gay or transgender, the only way workers who identify as LGBTQ can get real protection is through a union contract. By standing together and negotiating a legally binding union contract, we can make certain that no one is fired because of some company’s or manager’s antiquated and discriminatory notions. UFCW members, and millions of union members across the labor movement, are fighting for non-discrimination clauses that guarantee the most basic rights: the right to keep your job regardless of your sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression. By bargaining strong union contracts, union members can ensure that LGBTQ workers have the right to use family leave to care for a partner; the right to have their health benefits apply to their partners and families; and the right to use the bathroom of their choice.
The truth is that our union has had to take on these civil rights battles in our workplaces, one-by-one, out of necessity because of the lack of federal protections. A federal law barring such discrimination is needed now, more than ever. Much like many of the workplace protections we now take for granted, our legislators should follow the path that union workers have boldly laid and protect every American worker from unfair discrimination. In the 21st century, in a country where it is finally possible for every American to marry the person they love, to allow someone to be fired for that same love is shameful.
While the fight for LGBTQ equality has taken a major step forward, we must not forget the hard work that must be done and the battles that must be won if we are to achieve true equality for all.
Marc Perrone is president of the 1.3 million member United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.