Originally published at the Halifax Media Co-op, September 4 2013
This article uses the single gender-neutral pronoun “they”.
“Queer struggles are class struggles,” says Charlie Huntley, a 25 year old coffee shop worker, “and should never be addressed as if they are isolated issues.”
On the heels of a successful union drive at Just Us on Spring Garden, and in the midst of an ongoing battle at Second Cup on Quinpool, the Baristas Rise Up (BRU) campaign was initiated as – “a worker-led union movement that is fighting to improve working conditions and industry standards in precarious and low-waged café jobs.”
Similar to the Fight for Fifteen that has exploded across the United States this year in such cities as New York, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and Milwaukee where low-waged workers are organizing for dignity, respect, and justice, BRU has received extensive media coverage.
What is often missing from the mainstream media narrative is an analysis of the economic undercurrents pinning this organizing and how they affect young marginalized workers.
As a young queer and trans worker I find myself, like others in my generation, entering the work force in this neoliberal age of austerity where we are forced to compete for fewer and fewer jobs that often have none of the benefits such as health plans, parental leave, sick pay, or pensions which workers of the past fought for and won.
According to “Public Disservice: The Impact of Federal Government Job Cuts in Atlantic Canada,” a publication put out by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Atlantic Provinces are projected to lose 4,400 full-time public sector jobs by 2015. Moreover, the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council states that between 2001 and 2010, the region created about four times as many low-wage jobs as it did in high-wage sectors.
In Halifax, Nova Scotia, a city that swells to accommodate approximately 30,000 students annually, there was an alarming youth unemployment rate of 18.2% in 2012 – a figure that was almost twice the average for people aged 25 and older. According to a labour market bulletin, “youth are often the first to be laid off during economic downturns and the last to find employment when the economy begins to rebound.”
Moreover, Nova Scotian students graduate with an average of $35, 642 of debt (plus interest), and are struggling to pay that off while working minimum wage jobs that, at full-time hours, have an annual gross income of just over $20,000 (before taxes) – that is, if they are lucky enough to have a job at all.
As young students we are finding ourselves caught in the double bind of over- and under- qualified – a bind which leaves us trapped in cycles of mounting debt that does not assure us of a good job but instead keeps us locked in poverty as we try to pay off our student loans while working part-time, non-union jobs in retail and food service.
Food-service positions are no longer “transient jobs” or a step on the ladder up to something better. We are living through the midst of an economic crisis that, for the first time in decades, has an entire generation hitting their heads on the glass ceiling of class mobility.
Given the situation, it is not surprising that low-waged workers in Nova Scotia and elsewhere are organizing to change what it means to be a food service worker. Moreover, it is not surprising that young workers who experience multiple forms of oppression, including queer and trans workers, are finding themselves over-represented in the food service industry.
In a province where young people are disproportionately unemployed or underemployed, as queer and trans workers we find ourselves clinging to whatever work we can find and are often more willing to put up with homophobia and transphobia on the job.
According to Huntley, BRU is particularly relevant for queer workers not only because “this movement started with a handful of queer and/or trans folks,” but also because there are specific barriers that queer and trans people face when finding and keeping a job. Injustice at Every Turn, a 2011 American survey of trans-identified people found that unemployment rate for trans and gender non-conforming people (14%) was double the national average.
This number increased to up to four times the national unemployment rate (28%) for trans people of color. And additionally, more trans women (36%) than trans men (19%) reported job loss due to discrimination. Overwhelming, almost all respondents (90%) reported experiencing harassment or mistreatment on the job, or took action to avoid it.
Jude Kinder, a 25 year old Second Cup barista who was fired following the union vote, graduated from Mount St Vincent in 2010 and says that so far they have been unable to find work in their field (editing). Moreover, their wage “has actually decreased from a high of $14-16 an hour to minimum wage since graduation.”
Kinder feels that being visibly queer/trans “impacts how I am perceived during interviews,” and that “often my appearance is over-scrutinized compared with my workmates.”
Andrew Guthro, 25, who works at Planet Organic, echoes Kinder and states that, “anywhere where there is a queer/trans person serving patrons there is also bound to be expectations, prejudices, estrangement and discrimination.” This added pressure leaves Guthro feeling the need to show that he can be “as useful and kind a worker — if not more so — as my straight counterparts. It’s a matter of always having to prove yourself, from the schoolyard to the workplace, as just as valuable as everyone else.”
Being visible as a queer or trans worker is a double-edged sword. Kinder hypothesizes that queers often follow each other through workplaces because, “if one is employed, it’s likely to be a safer place for others, and those employed in food service are probably most visible.”
But aside from being an indicator of “safer employment” for other queer and trans people, working in the food service industry means that you are face-to-face with the public every day, leaving you vulnerable to homophobia and transphobia. In particular for trans and gender non-conforming workers, this visibility can mean being subject to the continued stress of “misgendering” (which is when you are perceived as a gender other than one you identify with). Often, bosses do not understand the added psychological burden this causes for employees. Huntley even says that they’ve had an employer tell them to be “more patient” when they experience transphobia at work.
What can unions do?
According to Huntley, there are several benefits that a union structure can offer to queer and trans workers. Not only are queer and trans union members able to access all of the same benefits as their straight and cisgendered (non-trans) co-workers. But there are two benefits which are particularly important for queer and trans workers.
The first is “access to resources such as a lawyer when discrimination occurs on the job”. Considering that recourse in our legal system is vastly inaccessible to those who are economically disadvantaged, access to a grievance process and legal representation through a union structure makes it more possible for queer and trans people to challenge discrimination at a workplace rather than just grinning and bearing it.
The second major benefit is through the just cause provision of collective agreements that requires an employer to provide a justified reason for firing an employee. This affords added job security which, as Huntley points out, “can be pretty important to queer and trans folks, because once we loose our jobs, it’s more challenging to find one due to homophobic and transphobic discrimination.”
There are also additional changes that unions can make to further address the needs of their queer and trans members. According to “Workers in Transition: A Practical Guide about Gender Transition for Union Representatives”, a resource published by the Canadian Labour Congress, unions can support trans employees by adding language to a collective agreement that includes a non-discrimination clause, coverage of trans-related health care in the group benefits plan, and offer paid transition leave.
Union representatives and members can also protect the rights of trans employees by maintaining strict confidentiality policies, negotiating anti-harassment training in the workplace, and advocating for trans issues along with other human rights issues that the union supports. Because unions play an important role in the fight for equality and shaping public opinion, Workers in Transition argues that the union movement can “use the skills and knowledge we have developed in these campaigns to help further the struggle of trans people for equality and dignity.”
If unions are to remain relevant they must function first and foremost as fighting agents for all their members. This also means that the labour movement must deepen its analysis of the particular problems experienced by queer and trans workers.
Huntley states that, “unions are at their best when they self-consciously challenge the various systemic forces that serve to keep individuals down. These are most often “economic” forces – class-based forces, but not always and not exclusively. Unions, when they are serious about empowering workers, must recognize that different workers are differently disempowered and so must be empowered according to their needs. A one-size-fits-all approach, no matter how well intended, is going to be inadequate in fighting the unique disempowerment of queer and trans workers.”
It’s important to recognize that queer and trans workers have been at the forefront of BRU in advocating for the improvement of working conditions for low-waged baristas and food service workers. This is not a coincidence. We must critically examine the reasons why this is so that we can develop a strategy for moving forward.
With a mainstream LGBT movement that has a shallow analysis of class now, more than ever, it’s important to understand the ways that capitalism and queer and trans oppression reinforce each other. These theories and experiences need to be brought together in order to effectively fight back. And just as the discrimination that queer and trans workers experience is unique, so are the assets that we can bring to the labour movement. For queer and trans people, oppression does not begin or end at the workplace and often we possess a broad understanding of social inequality, creative strategies for resistance, and a basic understanding of the importance of community, solidarity, and collective strength. If properly utilized, these skills make us a fighting force to be reckoned with.
Shay Enxuga is a queer and trans food service worker, member of Baristas Rise Up, and general rabble-rouser.