Thinking Queerly: Queer workers, unite!

LGBTQ folks face alarmingly high rates of harassment and discrimination in the workplace. These experiences are often traumatic; they trigger our acute stress response and desensitize us to subtler injustices. Consider exploitation: the type of injustice that all workers under capitalism experience regardless of race, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender. Exploitation is the reason many LGBTQ people can’t access therapy, gender affirming care, legal recourse. Why don’t we talk more about this? Maybe it’s because we’re too exhausted from working three jobs just to keep a roof over our heads.

Awakening to class consciousness is like awakening to awareness of white supremacy or the patriarchy. It doesn’t happen all at once. It takes a lot of conversations and experiences before you connect the dots, and realize the world is built solely to serve rich white men. Depending on the individual, trauma can speed up or retard this process. 

Take my story. I transitioned while working at an Irish pub in Lexington, Kentucky. The owner wasn’t just a bully, he was a transphobic bully. When I couldn’t take it anymore I quit, taking a job that paid minimum wage and required me to work the craziest hours. I was so desperate to get out of the old environment that didn’t even occur to me to negotiate my pay or ask for my preferred schedule. 7.25 an hour? 11pm closes and 5am opens? Perfect. When coworkers complained about the pay, the schedule, or company policies, I couldn’t believe the entitlement. I was just so grateful to not be working for an abuser anymore. Didn’t they realize how good we had it? Yes I’d read Marx. I knew capitalism was evil. I knew our job wasn’t perfect. We all deserved to make more. But it could be so much worse. It’s not like we were out here dying on the job. Oops.

2021 has been called “the year of the worker.” It was a year dominated by strikes and unionization efforts. It also marked the beginning of “The Great Resignation.” Record numbers of people left their jobs, leaving economists and journalists to ask: Is America experiencing an unofficial general strike? This has been one of the incredible, unexpected outcomes of Covid, and it’s every employer’s worst nightmare. Workers have realized just how essential they are. So essential that without them, their employer can’t make a dollar. So essential that without them, the economy comes screeching to a halt. 

Now 2022 is here, and workers still have the upper hand. We’ve continued quitting en masse, and companies that have been hemorrhaging money (because hiring and training is incredibly expensive) are now scrambling to offer their workers incentives without breaking the bank. Companies are setting aside an average 3.9% of total payroll for wage increases in 2022, the largest increase since 2008. One CEO got really creative (or really desperate) and offered employees $5,000 to quit after two weeks, believing that this would help him find the right people: people who are loyal (or naïve) enough to turn to 5K. Thanks to Covid, the fall of capitalism is well underway. All we need for a full-on revolution is for workers to continue interrupting business as usual, and put their safety before their employer’s profit. About that little word, “profit”…

Rob is a white cis man with a safety net. Max is a Black trans woman who grew up poor and struggles to find work due to hiring discrimination. Rob has a business degree (that his parents paid for) and loves to cook, so he starts a restaurant. Max has no degree, no assets, and no safety net. The one thing she has is time and energy (or labor) which she sells to Rob for a mere $10 an hour. Max can’t live on $10 an hour, but she accepts Rob’s offer because he is the only employer who didn’t make her feel uncomfortable in her interview. 

In an eight hour shift, Max produces $2000 in revenue. Since she earns $10 an hour as a line cook, only 80 of that $2000 goes to Max. Rob uses $1500 on overhead operational costs (goods, equipment, supplies, and anything else that went into producing that $2,000). The remaining $420 is what capitalists call “profit.” Where did this profit mysteriously come from? The time and energy that Max is not getting paid for. This is how capitalism works. This is why capitalism works. Like so many of us, Max knows she’s being exploited but she fears repercussions for speaking out. Oftentimes queer and trans folks feel trapped in exploitative jobs for the sole reason that their co-workers are accepting, or their boss is affirming, and they’re afraid of losing their situation. This is how capitalism weaponizes transphobia and racism: it makes workers feel powerless, when in reality we are anything but. 

Has Covid given you new insights into your worth, and how it’s being exploited? Does Max’s story make you want to boycott Rob? Does it seem wrong to you that your employer lifted their mask requirement in the midst of a huge surge of new Omnicron cases? Or stopped giving you hazard pay before anyone had even heard about the Delta variant? Does seeing workers on the news stand up to their employers inspire you to want to take action? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you might be a budding labor rights activist. 

Start by educating yourself on your rights. Verse yourself on different ways to strike and basics of organizing. Google union busting tactics. Join the “antiwork” community on Reddit (if only for entertainment purposes). Build trust with your coworkers. Learn about them, their interests and needs, their views. Ask them what they think about the Starbucks stores that have unionized, or the workers’ strikes that have been in the news. If they’re supportive of those efforts, that’s a good sign they might be down to clown. If they disapprove, find out why. Approach them with genuine curiosity and compassion, and you may just make a comrade, or at least an ally. Reach out to a professional organizer and learn about the benefits of unionizing. While you have them on the line, ask them for tips for organizing a strike. Maybe your store will be the next Starbucks or Kellogg, and catalyze the next big wave of change.

Note: If organizing feels too risky, don’t beat yourself up about it, or let others peer pressure you into participating in an action you’re not comfortable with. First, that will only backfire. And second, only you know your situation well enough to determine whether you can take that risk. There are always low-risk or no-risk ways you can contribute. Could you offer your space as an off-site meeting location? Provide emotional support for a striker? Take something off of their plate at work? A revolution has many lanes, none more important than the others.