“You can’t feel it from the front. You have to feel it from the back.”
My manager at McDonald’s barked these orders over a staff-wide headset moments before my coworker groped me.
As a transgender woman of color, my time working at McDonald’s in Redford, Michigan was filled with horrendous moments like this.
I was barred from using both the men’s and women’s restrooms and relegated to using a supply closet with an old toilet in it. My manager would refer me to as “boy slash girl.” I would get asked “How big is it?” My manager once remarked “you think I don’t know what you are because of how you dress and look?”
This job was my only source of income, so to try to avoid the constant harassment, I began to dress more like a man thinking it would stop – it didn’t.
All this took a toll on me. I often wondered if my only escape would be to kill myself. Instead, I decided to speak up and report the abuse to management. When my hours were cut, I took my complaints to the franchise owner. A week later, I was fired.
But I wasn’t going to allow myself to be bullied into silence. When I was at McDonald’s I joined the Fight for $15 – the national movement to win $15 an hour and union rights. By joining the movement, I learned more about my rights and realized I had the power to stand up for myself. So, I filed a civil rights lawsuit against McDonald’s hoping my story would shine a light on the issues trans workers face and to force the company to enforce a non-discrimination policy.
My experiences at McDonald’s are sadly the norm for workers like me – 97 percent of trans people report experiencing harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination on the job.
And, a 2015 National Transgender Discrimination Survey reveals some ugly truths about what it means to be a Trans worker in America: we are three times as likely to make less than $10,000 a year than the average worker, and three times as likely to face unemployment.
In our fight for equal treatment and dignity on the job, unions are one of the most powerful tools at our disposal. Union contracts for example do what federal and state laws do not: prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
That means union workers can’t be fired without just cause and they often have access to grievance procedures and arbitration. With unions, workers’ right to organize for better wages and working conditions are not impeded. With unions, we wouldn’t have to wait for politicians to speak to our issues, we would have a voice of our own.
Across the country, trans rights are under fire. According to an analysis done by MAP, there are 23 states that have laws that actually strip away the rights of trans people, and a majority of states simply don’t have laws that prevent employers from discriminating against trans workers.
We’ve seen this play out in North Carolina where HB 2 has stripped transgender citizens of their dignity and rights. Even at the federal level, Donald Trump has attempted to ban transgender Americans from serving their country.
It doesn’t matter if you are an officer in the military or a cashier at McDonald’s; our politicians and corporations treat transgender workers as second-class citizens.
Trans rights and workers’ rights are undeniably linked. The labor movement has won protections for generations of workers that have been exploited – immigrants, women, Black and brown and LGBTQ Americans. But there is still much progress to be made.
That’s why on Labor Day we LGBTQ workers will raise their voices along with underpaid workers from coast-to-coast to deliver one clear message: America needs unions.