Unions are the ultimate pro-equality hipsters: They were into it way before it was cool.
Right now in Michigan, a state with one of the worst records on gay rights, unions are facing a "right to work" challenge. Contrary to what "right to work" supporters say, the legislation does not create jobs or give a socialist right to employment. "Right to work" legislation makes it so that union members can opt out of paying union dues (in most cases, just $20 per month) while still requiring the unions to represent them.
In Michigan, the stronghold of the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agriculture Workers Union (UAW), Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is pushing "right to work" legislation during a lame-duck session without public hearings, without a commitee vote, and despite some Democrats being locked out of the Capitol building after walking outside to support protesters. Why do this now, after years of Gov. Snyder claiming he wouldn't push, in his words, "divisive, unecessary" legislation?
Despite the affront to Democracy itself, the supporters of "right to work" have clearly implied why they want this legislation to pass. As Terry Bowman testified before Congress, "they are using my union dues to push a political agenda that I oppose."
Guess which agenda that is? If you guessed the "far-left, homosexual agenda," you're right!
As you may recall, the AFL-CIO, the largest union organization in the United States, duked it out with the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) in Minnesota this year, pushing heavily unionized companies like General Mills to step up in the fight over marriage equality.
Allison Omens, a spokesperson for the AFL-CIO, said:
The AFL-CIO places high value on working with community partners on shared issues of social and economic justice from workers' rights to racial justice to LGBT equality. For example, in Minnesota and Washington the labor movement worked as part of the broad coalition to support LGBT rights from employment nondiscrimination to marriage equality.
And now it all makes sense.
Michigan, despite having some of the most anti-gay laws in the country, has the most pro-equality and accepting corporations. All of Michigan's largest corporations received a 100-percent rating in the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index, including Ford, Chrysler, General Motors, Dow Chemical, Kellogg and Whirlpool.
Decades before these companies received their pro-equality accolades, unions were pushing for workplace nondiscrimination. Through collective bargaining, unions were able to transform their companies into places that any gay or lesbian person would be proud to work for.
Equally important is the fact that "right to work" hurts workers in the long run. The most important role union representatives play is on the local level, fighting for the health and safety of their workers.
When I was in the Navy, for two years I often worked on engraving equipment that was very loud. Shortly after I moved on to another job, a safety officer casually walked in, did a sound test and put a sticker on the engraver that said "this equipment causes hazardous levels of noise." In a union environment, manufacturing equipment is rigorously inspected and safety standards are ruthlessly enforced long before a machine is turned on.
Before I was honorably discharged from the Navy, I did a hearing test where I found out I had lost 30 percent or more of my hearing at certain frequencies. I'm often asking friends and family members to repeat themselves, and people get frustrated with me, thinking I'm not listening. In public places and restaurants it's difficult making sense of all the noise. Sometimes I just act like I can hear what people are saying because I don't want to embarrass myself. For the rest of my life, my hearing will only get worse.
My situation is what happens when workers don't have anyone to independently represent them. Without union representatives, paid for by union dues, who will stand up for a guy like me?
If "right to work" legislation is passed in Michigan, conservatives are sure to use homophobia as a tool to weaken unions and hurt the middle class and the LGBT rights movement all at the same time. The real price will be paid in the health and safety of our workers, and in rising inequality throughout the country. So let's be honest with ourselves: Michigan's vote on "right to work" legislation is just another dog whistle for "you're on your own."