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U.S. agency seeks to cut LGBTQ protections in union contract talks

NLRB denies meeting with employees concern about anti-LGBTQ move

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The National Labor Relations Board is seeking under the Trump administration to axe LGBTQ non-discrimination language — as well as protections based on race, sex and religion — from its union contract with professional attorneys within the U.S. agency as part of collective-bargaining negotiations, according to union representatives.

The union, known as the National Labor Relations Board Professional Association, is made up of about 120 attorneys at the NLRB headquarters in D.C.

“They’re taking it all out,” one NLRBPA member said. “They’re basically saying it’s duplicative, it’s covered by statute, so we don’t want to do anything through grievance and arbitration. If you think there is discrimination, then you need to a file complaint with the EEOC.”

The NLRBPA is pleading with Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to step in and urge the agency to keep those non-discrimination protections in place within the union contract. Individually, LGBTQ employees with concerns over removal of the non-discrimination protections also sought to meet with management on the issue, but were rebuffed, union members told the Washington Blade.

For the time being, NLRB is required to maintain the non-discrimination protections from the previous contract, even though that contract expired last year. But that situation is expected to change soon. As a result of executive orders signed by President Trump last year, federal employee unions are required to engage in negotiations with their respective agencies to form new contracts.

In a pair of letters dated March 5, the NLRPA calls on Raskin and Feinstein to engage in oversight of the agency as it seeks to eliminate those non-discrimination protections. One letter calls the proposal “a giant step backward in the fight to ensure that LGBTQ workers receive equal treatment under the law.”

“It is a mark of shame that employment discrimination against LGBTQ employees, including federal employees, has been tolerated for so long, and to callously take any protections away after so long a struggle for equal treatment would be unconscionable,” one letter says. “In that spirit, we would be most grateful for any oversight of the agency and help that you can provide to defend the workplace rights of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.”

The letters also express other concerns. Among them is NLRB proposing to eliminate a standing joint labor-management Equal Employment Opportunity Committee, a reversal the union says turns “historically a cooperative relationship between management and the union into an adversarial relationship.” The NLRB also proposes to undercut the grievance and arbitration system in other ways, the letter says.

Raskin, in a statement to the Blade responding to the letter, said NLRB’s proposed removal of LGBTQ protections is unjust, especially from a U.S. agency charged with enforcing federal labor law.

“Trump’s administration has tried from the start to purge all mention of LGBTQ rights from federal law and policy,” Raskin said. “Now, by proposing to eliminate protections for LGBTQ employees from its collective bargaining agreements, the NLRB — which is supposed to be a leader for workplace fairness—becomes the latest perpetrator of the administration’s political assault on equal protection and equal employment rights for the LGBTQ community.”

NLRB, according to members of the union, justified its proposed removal of the non-discrimination protections on the basis that employees could seek recourse against discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law that bars discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

But that law as it stands affords no protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Although the U.S. Supreme Court is considering litigation that will decide whether anti-LGBTQ discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, thus illegal under Title VII, there is no certainty that will happen.

Should the Supreme Court rule Title VII doesn’t cover anti-LGBTQ discrimination, NLRBPA attorneys would have no recourse under federal law for LGBTQ discrimination claims.

NLRBPA employees — even though they work within D.C. — also aren’t covered by the D.C. Human Rights Act. Although the law bars anti-LGBTQ discrimination, the D.C. Human Rights Act doesn’t have jurisdiction over federal entities, such as NLRB.

Over the course of contract negotiations, one NLRBPA member said, management was unmoved by the argument LGBTQ non-discrimination protections are needed in the union contract because the Supreme Court might be against them under Title VII.

“There’s a possibility we’re not going to be covered by statute, so we will have no protections whatsoever,” the NLRBPA members said. “And my understanding was the agency response was, ‘We can’t control what the Supreme Court does.”

According to the NLRBPA, non-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation have been part of the NLRBPA contract since 2002 and non-discrimination protections based on gender identity have been part of the contract since 2017. Although that contract was terminated in 2019, the agency remains legally obligated to enforce it until a new contract agreement with the union is reached.

“So you can imagine our dismay when we received contract proposals from management eliminating the contractual provisions prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and stating that any ‘prior MOUs, agreements, or settlements executed prior to the latest date below are not incorporated into this agreement,’” the letters say.

Outside of union negotiations, the letter says, a group of LGBTQ employees sought to meet with senior management to discuss concerns over the removal of the non-discrimination language, but were unsuccessful.

Adam Naill, an NLRB attorney and NLRB union official, affirmed to the Blade via email a group of LGBTQ employees were denied a meeting with management outside the negotiations.

“A number of LGBTQ folks at the agency attempted to meet with NLRB senior leadership to just express their concerns about the proposal and how they’re feeling — frightened and alarmed — about management’s position on this and were rebuffed, senior leadership said they wouldn’t meet with employees about the issue,” Naill said.

The NLRB justified denying the meeting, one NLRBPA member said, by giving assurances the agency is committed to LGBTQ equality and saying the meeting would be inappropriate amid ongoing contract negotiations.

But the NLRBPA member expressed doubt about that commitment to LGBTQ equality based on attorneys in the workforce overheard making homophobic statements.

“Among some of the rank and file attorneys, those people who very likely in the coming years will probably be promoted to supervisors, there’s been several times overhearing some very problematic homophobic, misogynist statements coming from them,” the NLRBPA member said.

The office of Feinstein didn’t respond Monday to the Blade’s request to comment on the proposed removal of LGBTQ protections. The NLRB declined to comment for this article, citing a practice of withholding commenting on contract negotiations with unions.

Jerame Davis, executive director of the LGBTQ labor group Pride at Work, condemned NLRB in a statement to the Blade, but said this move is consistent with the policy of the Trump administration.

“As taxpayers, we should expect that all working people — including LGBTQ working people — would be protected from discrimination in a federal government job,” Davis said. “But it is particularly insulting that these protections are being stripped from the working people who protect our country’s workforce from unfair labor practices. There is little that has been consistent with this administration, but their attacks on LGBTQ people have come regularly, like clockwork.”

The union for the professional attorneys at NLRB is different from the union for the 1,200 employees in the field offices, which is the known simply as the National Labor Relations Board Union, or NLRBU.

According to NLRBPA, the sister union is also currently engaged in contract negotiations, but they’re still bargaining over ground rules and haven’t made substantive proposals. The Blade emailed NLRBU seeking a comment on the situation.

NLRB chair John Ring and NLRB general counsel Peter Robb are set to testify on Wednesday before the House Appropriations Committee on the Trump administration’s budget request. It remains to be seen whether the agency officials will be questioned on the proposed non-discrimination omission from the union contract.

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Federal Government

Department of Education to investigate Nex Benedict’s Okla. school district

Nonbinary student died last month after students assaulted them

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Nex Benedict (Family photo)

On Friday the U.S. Department of Education informed Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson that the department will open an investigation in response to HRC’s letter regarding Owasso Public Schools and its failure to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment that may have contributed to the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary teenager of Choctaw heritage. 

This investigation was triggered by a formal complaint made last week by Robinson, who wrote to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and asked his department to use the enforcement mechanisms at its disposal to prevent similar tragedies from taking place in the future and to help hold accountable those responsible for Benedict’s death.

The letter from the Department of Education reads: “the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), is opening for investigation the above-referenced complaint that you filed against the Owasso Public Schools (the District.) Your complaint alleges that the District discriminated against students by failing to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment, of which it had notice, at Owasso High School during the 2023-2024 school year,” said Robinson.

“Nex’s family, community and the broader 2SLGBTQI+ (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex+) community in Oklahoma are still awaiting answers following their tragic loss. We appreciate the Department of Education responding to our complaint and opening an investigation — we need them to act urgently so there can be justice for Nex, and so that all students at Owasso High School and every school in Oklahoma can be safe from bullying, harassment and discrimination,” Robinson added.

According to the letter, OCR is opening the following issues for investigation:

  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Title IX.
  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Section 504 and Title II.

HRC sent a second letter to the Department asking it to promptly begin an investigation into the Oklahoma State Department of Education, as well as the current State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ryan Walters. In addition:

  • Robinson wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the Department of Justice to begin an investigation into Nex’s death.
  • Robinson wrote to Dr. Margaret Coates, superintendent of the Owasso School District in Oklahoma, calling for the superintendent to take advantage of HRC’s Welcoming Schools program — the most comprehensive bias-based bullying prevention program in the nation to provide LGBTQ and gender inclusive training and resources — and offering to bring experts to the district immediately.

The full text of the letter from the Department of Education in response to HRC can be found here.

The full text of the initial letter from Robinson to Cardona can be found here.

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District of Columbia

Judy and Dennis Shepard discuss Nex Benedict, anti-LGBTQ laws at DC event

Nonbinary Okla. high school student died last month after fight

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Dennis and Judy Shephard speak at the Raben Group’s D.C. offices on Feb. 29, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Amber Laenen)

Judy and Dennis Shepard on Thursday reflected on Nex Benedict’s death and the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ laws across the country during a discussion the Raben Group hosted at their D.C. office.

The discussion, which MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated, took place less than a month after Benedict died.

Benedict, who was nonbinary, passed away on Feb. 8 after students at their high school in Owasso, Okla., assaulted them in a bathroom. 

Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt are among those who have publicly responded to Benedict’s death, which took place after they endured months of bullying. More than 300 advocacy groups have demanded Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’ removal and called for a federal investigation into the Oklahoma Department of Education’s “actions and policies” that have facilitated a “culture where rampant harassment of 2SLGBTQI+ students has been allowed to go unchecked.”

“Parents are doing whatever they can to protect and encourage and support kids, and you have these what I call evil, evil people around the country pushing these laws,” said Dennis Shepard.

He noted lawmakers around the country are pushing anti-LGBTQ laws and other efforts that include the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Dennis Shepard also highlighted an effort to defund gender studies programs at the University of Wyoming.

“[It is] the old white male, Christian geezers who want to go back to the days of the 50s when they had that superior arrogant attitude,” he said. “They’re losing it and they don’t want to, so they’re passing everything they can.”

“What happened to Nex is a result of that,” added Dennis Shepard. “They feel like Henderson and McKinney felt when they took Matt out on the prairie.”

Matthew Shepard died on Oct. 12, 1998, after Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney brutally beat him and left him tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo. Then-President Barack Obama in 2009 signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal hate crimes law.

“If you’re considered different, you’re in fear of your life right now because you don’t fit in and it’s got to stop,” said Dennis Shepard.

Judy Shepard echoed her husband, noting this moment is “the last gasp of the fight against the community.” 

“In my heart, I know this is a moment in time, and it’s going to pass. But also in that time, all these young people, everyone in the community is afraid, but young people are being terrorized,” she said. “It just shouldn’t be happening.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

N.Y. AG joins multi-state brief in Colo. anti-trans discrimination case

Letitia James and 18 other attorneys general support plaintiff

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trans health care, gay news, Washington Blade
New York Attorney General Letitia James (Photo public domain)

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday joined a brief by 18 other Democratic state attorneys general urging the Colorado Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling against Masterpiece Cakeshop for anti-trans discrimination.

A customer, Autumn Scardina, sued the business over claims that it refused to provide her a cake upon learning that it was for a celebration of her transition. The case is not the first in which owner Jack Smith has faced claims of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

In 2012, Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to fulfill an order for a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, which led to the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — and a narrow ruling that did not address core legal questions weighing the constitutionality of First Amendment claims vis-a-vis the government’s enforcement of LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws.

“Denying service to someone simply because of who they are is illegal discrimination, plain and simple,” James said in a press release. “Allowing this kind of behavior would undermine our nation’s fundamental values of freedom and equality and set a dangerous precedent.”

She added, “I am proud to stand with my fellow attorneys general against this blatant transphobic discrimination.”

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Scardina, noting that Smith objected to fulfilling her cake order only after learning about her intended use for it “and that Phillips did not believe the cake itself expressed any inherent message.”

The fact pattern in both cases against Masterpiece Cakeshop resembles that of another case that originated in Colorado and was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court last year, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis.

This time, the justices did not sidestep the question of whether the state’s anti-discrimination law can be enforced against a business owner, Lorie Smith, a website designer who claimed religious protections for her refusal to provide services to a same-sex couple for their nuptials.

The court’s conservative supermajority ruled in favor of Smith, which was widely seen as a blow to LGBTQ rights.

Joining James in her brief are the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Hawai’i, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and D.C.

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