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My first-hand experience

By |2007-03-01T09:00:00-05:00March 1st, 2007|Opinions|

by Jeremy Bishop

Do you remember your first job right out of college or high school? I sure do. For a young gay man it was quite a revelation. A mixture of pride and disappointment.
I was just out of Wake Forest University, eager to put my passion for LGBT equality to work. I thought I was really lucky, I found a job with a national gay rights organization in Washington, DC. I thought I was walking into a paradise. It turned out to be more like an unintentional hell.
It wasn’t created by malicious bosses or micro-managing boards, but came about because of overburdened staff work schedules, with little attention to the needs of gay employees working there on the front lines and fighting for the rights of gay folks.
This organization openly, frequently, and effectively criticized Fortune 500 companies for not offering domestic partner benefits. But the contrasting truth was that it didn’t even offer its own all-gay staff DP benefits. We talked with management for over a year about adding these and other benefits; heck, we even formed a non-managerial working group. Nothing changed. Nothing.
I know it wasn’t maliciousness on their part, but it was still a problem. Just because the organization was overwhelmed with a huge mission didn’t mean, as far as we were concerned, that it was OK to deny the almost all-gay staff DP benefits because we couldn’t find the time to fit our concerns and request on the agenda. Something needed to change. Well: it was time to form a union.
From then on it was an employee life of secret meetings with union reps and one-on-one hush-hush conversations about the urgent need to form a union. Out of the sight of management — this stuff can get you fired — we got a majority of staff to sign petition cards that demanded a union represent us at work and our interests. We created our first contract: DP benefits, gender-identity non-discrimination, a salary scale. That should be it, right?
If only ii were that easy. After two years of “scheduling” conflicts, negotiation stagnation, and creative efforts at salary withholding, salary increasing — back and forth — we finally got a union contract. I hope I don’t sound like a cliche, when I say this three-year ordeal taught me a lot about life. But it did.
In American culture, it’s hip to talk about diversity and ensuring opportunity for people of color. I learned in this my first job that — empirically — people of color held positions of little salary, while white workers seemed disproportionately to receive so called “merit-based pay raises.” I also learned that I was tired of “talking” about diversity. It was time to walk the talk. As I learned, there’s a direct solution: form a union.
With the signing of our union contract, we as LGBT-and-allied staff ensured that people couldn’t be brought on board for the lowest bid. We demanded and got salary scales, raises based on seniority — and not on the whims of management. We created a system where all people, regardless of race or gender had equal salaries and knew when their next salary raise was coming.
Contrary to media images of the “all giving” corporate CEO, I, the bright-eyed, eager, college graduate, gay youth, learned that your employer — gay or straight — doesn’t necessarily have your best interests at heart. We were gay staffers working for an organization that fought for LGBT rights, but did not offer us the benefits it was fighting for. No one could change that for us, without us raising our own voices as one. The solution was that simple: forming a union.
We finally had DP benefits and protection from discrimination on the job because gender identity or expression. For me it was a revelation all the more worth sharing.

About the Author:

Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.
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