Unions stand up for trans people in the workplace

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Hamilton steel mill. Image: Cathy/Flickr

Mayson Fulk works in manufacturing in London, Ontario, and is a member of the United Steelworkers. Among other roles, he serves as their trans liaison for District 6, which covers all of Canada. Scott Neigh interviews him about what unions can do to stand up for trans workers.

An important step in the journey of many (though not all) transgender people is transition. Exactly what that entails varies a great deal from one person to the next, but it can include a whole range of measures designed to allow the person in question to manifest the gender that they are rather than the gender they've been told they have to be. It might involve an internal or emotional process of coming to terms with their experience. It can include gender-affirming medical interventions, but (as with all of these things) doesn't for everyone. And it can include various elements of social transition -- things like a new name, adopting pronouns that fit better, changes in dress and personal esthetic, and coming out to friends and family.

It is no secret that trans people can face significant stigma, hostility, discrimination and even violence. In a major study of trans people in Ontario, 20 per cent were found to have been physically or sexually assaulted for being trans, and an additional 34 per cent had been verbally threatened or harassed. Fully 83 per cent of trans people who had transitioned reported having avoided certain public spaces or situations out of fear of harassment or other anti-trans hostility. The study also found that these experiences of violence and discrimination had significant mental health impacts on trans people. There is also evidence, however, that acceptance and support make a big difference -- for instance, trans youth with very supportive parents were much more likely to report significantly better mental health and wellbeing in a variety of categories than trans youth with parents who were somewhat or not at all supportive.

An important context in which hostility and discrimination can have a significant material impact on trans people is the workplace. Though trans people have human rights protections in this country, the study cited above found that 13 per cent had been fired and 18 per cent had been turned down for a job for being trans, with an additional 15 per cent and 32 per cent respectively suspecting that these things had happened because they were trans. And as today's interview participant notes, there can be a whole other level of negative treatment in everyday workplace interactions that statistics like this can't capture but that can have a signifcant impact on trans people's wellbeing.

Today's guest is in a rare position to be able to support trans people in workplace contexts.

Fulk's first step in becoming involved with his union was pushing them to join the many other labour organizations that participate in the local Pride parade in London. Then, a number of years ago, Fulk decided to take a fateful step -- to transition in his workplace. He started out by looking for information. He figured the union would have something related to the process, but they didn't, so he dug up as much information as he could on his own and went to his union rep. They sat down, had a talk. The rep didn't know a whole lot about trans issues, but thankfully was supportive and open, and Fulk ended up doing some ad hoc "trans 101" education with him.

Fulk's own transition journey plus his interest in advocating for and with others started him down a new path within the labour movement. He has become involved at a few different levels in the union in developing curriculum and doing education related to trans issues with members, officers and staff. He has become a member of the LGBTQ+ advisory committee of the international level of the union, based in Pittsburgh, as well as a member of the human rights committee for District 6.

In his work with the latter, he has been involved in putting together a workplace transition guidebook, based on talking with a wide range of different trans people in many different kinds of workplaces across several different sectors. As a result of this work, and the relationship-building it involved, Fulk started getting regular emails and calls from trans people seeking advice and support. The district ended up creating the position of trans liaison for Fulk, which he does in addition to being a chief griever in his workplace and an officer in his local. As trans liaison, he offers support and advice to both members who are transitioning and union reps who are working with members who are transitioning, in addition to a range of education work.

Both the international LGBTQ+ advisory committee and the District 6 human rights committee will be participating in the union's upcoming policy convention, and working on policy changes to ensure that more collective agreements include gender-related non-discrimination clauses and trans-inclusive health care, and to expand access to trans-related education for members.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Cathy/Flickr

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