Last month, the Michigan AFL-CIO co-sponsored the 25th anniversary Michigan Pride rally at the state capitol, standing up for the rights of our state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. It was a great celebration, with a lot of good discussion about the need to amend Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.
Under current law, no one can be fired, denied housing or any public accommodation because of race, gender, religion or ethnicity, among other characteristics. But it’s legal, in most Michigan jurisdictions, to fire a person or evict someone simply because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.
It’s beyond obvious that a person’s private life has nothing to do with their ability to be a productive employee, a good tenant or to enjoy any other civil right. So it’s good news that the Legislature is considering proposals to add protections for LGBT citizens to Michigan law.
Similar legislation has been introduced before. This time, however, a significant sector of Michigan’s business community is backing the idea. Under the banner of the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition, many of Michigan’s top corporate leaders are saying that discrimination in any form is bad for business.
I don’t always agree with corporate executives. But in this case, I couldn’t agree more. Discrimination is not only unfair and un-American, it’s anti-competitive. It costs companies real money when they reject the talents of a potential worker just because he or she is gay, a person of color, or from a different country.
In fact, it’s working people and our unions who make our economy more competitive and more consistent with American values by fighting against discrimination in all its ugly forms. In 1975, members of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) at the University of Michigan negotiated a contract clause preventing discrimination against gay and lesbian employees.
Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers have added similar language to their contracts in Michigan, as did the United Auto Workers during 1999 negotiations with Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. And members of the Michigan Education Association now have inclusive non-discrimination clauses in more than 100 contracts across the state of Michigan.
Union members have a long record of moving faster and more effectively than business and political leaders on these issues. Civil rights for women and people of color didn’t become the law of the land until the 1960s. But non-discrimination clauses — with real enforcement — were a standard feature of union contracts for many years beforehand.
Equality under the law is essential. But it’s also worth remembering that in the workplace — where most of us spend a good chunk of our waking hours — there’s no better tool for fighting discrimination than a good union contract, a strong grievance procedure, and active members who support one another.
As a union member, I’m proud our labor movement is standing up for justice for LGBT citizens. As a Michigander, I’ll be proud when our entire state does the same. And I’m happy to work with labor, business, Republicans and Democrats to make it happen.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.
Karla Swift is president of the Michigan AFL-CIO.