Attending the international human rights conference at the Outgames in Montreal last summer, delegates with the United Steelworkers (USW) union realized they were one of the few unions that did not have a queer caucus.
That realization prompted members of USW local 1998, the local that represents roughly 5,700 administrative and technical staff at the University Of Toronto, to found SteelPride this fall.
“After coming back from the international human rights conference in Montreal this summer, we felt very motivated to start this up,” says Nik Redman, cocoordinator of SteelPride. “We got to meet other LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer] union members from around the world. It’s something that has been talked about in the local for a while — a gay standing committee.”
With U of T’s reputation as a diverse and progressive institution, it might come as a surprise that the local hadn’t already formed some sort of queer group. Union reps say that’s partly because the USW has been good representing and lobbying for queer issues at the bargaining table.
“For myself, the SteelWorkers have been really excellent with LGBTQ rights and being out there,” says Redman.
SteelPride cocoordinator Martin Aiello says there are still workers who are still not comfortable being out.
“We saw the need [to initiate the committee] because many people are still not completely out and even though it is the U of T there is still discrimination in our workplace,” says Aiello. “Some people do not realize that workers’ rights are human rights. When someone is harassed or isolated in the workplace because of his sexual orientation or her gender identity, their human rights and their rights as workers are violated.”
USW local 1998 provides an array of benefits for queer workers. The workers are covered for most of the HIV/AIDS medications. Trans workers are covered for hormones and for medication post sex reassignment surgery, but the surgery itself is not.
“We are lobbying to place the surgery back under OHIP,” says Allison Dubarry, president of USW local 1998.
Dubarry says the local faced no obstacles starting up SteelPride, but there are unions out there, primarily in the private sector, still struggling.
The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), one of Canada’s largest unions, says there are two main reasons for this.
“For employees it’s about losing your job or losing your friends and being treated differently. For employers, it’s about losing customers and fear of being boycotted,” says CAW lawyer Lisa Kelly.
Kelly says employers in the private sector, especially if they have ties to a US parent or US clients, are usually more reluctant to support equity issues for fear of losing conservative customers. She cites the example of Ford being boycotted in the US because of their progressive approach to queer issues. To the car company’s credit, it has resisted, but there was fear it could have caved in.
Kelly says queer caucuses are important because they not only strive for legal equality but social equality as well.
“A helpful trend got active around fighting queer issues and stayed active in the union by fighting for a whole range of issues and got allies on queer issues and became allies on other issues that they may not have been active about before,” says Kelly.