TLDEF Employees Mount Unionization Effort

Andy Marra at the Supreme Court in 2019.
Andy Marra at the Supreme Court in 2019.
Donna Aceto

Citing inadequate healthcare coverage and other shortcomings, employees at the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF), a non-profit transgender litigation group based in New York, unveiled plans on October 20 to form a union — and the organization’s leadership swiftly vowed to recognize the labor drive.

TLDEF, which is known for fighting anti-trans policies in healthcare, work, schools, and other areas, is facing an internal reckoning after two trans employees of color had gender-affirming surgeries denied under the company’s healthcare plan. Members of TLDEF’s unionization effort, dubbed the Union of Legal Workers for Trans Liberation, are demanding improvements to healthcare coverage and other workplace benefits, including paid time off, sick time, and cost-of-living raises. The TLDEF unionization movement encompasses all seven eligible staffers in a team of 15 employees.

The employees are working on the unionization initiative with the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys – UAW Local 2325, which represents public defenders and non-profits. In a tweet, the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys wrote, “Welcome the workers of @TLDEF to our union!”

Workers said in a written statement posted on Twitter that they sought quick recognition of their union to avoid a lengthy election process with the National Labor Relations Board, which they say “will take time away from our clients.” In an email to Gay City News, TLDEF executive director Andy Marra responded with a message of support to workers.

“I’m pleased to share TLDEF’s leadership responded immediately and positively the same day we received the notification of our staff’s intent to unionize,” Marra said. “Just last night, TLDEF’s board unanimously endorsed the union’s formation using a card-check process for voluntary recognition, and we’re following up with the union to make that happen. We look forward to a constructive collective bargaining process and reaching agreements in good faith and in alignment with TLDEF’s values of fairness and equity.”

Terrence Francois is a TLDEF employee and member of the union.Photographer/Margarita Corporan

The moment represents a critical juncture for TLDEF at a time when some other labor movements in the community have culminated in messy public disputes between upper management and rank and file employees. Two years ago, employees at Housing Works — an organization which serves people experiencing homelessness and living with HIV/AIDS — stormed off the job as part of a unionization push that dragged on for over a year after workers faced resistance from the organization’s leader, Charles King. Employees eventually voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

Terrence Francois, a Black transgender man and member of the TLDEF unionization campaign, welcomed the organization’s decision to voice support of the union.

“I feel that’s a step in the right direction towards recognizing their deep shortcomings and committing to listening and serving the needs of staff who are the first people transgender and gender non-conforming clients and ally supporters engage with,” said Francois, who is an associate for donor engagement and campaigns at TLDEF.

Leading up to the organization’s recognition of the union drive, Francois said the company’s health insurance plan, United Healthcare Oxford, denied covering his gender-affirming procedure. Just a couple of weeks before his surgery, Francois said he received a denial letter from United Healthcare Oxford, deeming his long-awaited surgery as “cosmetic.”

“It was supposed to be a gift to myself,” Francois said, noting that the surgery came ahead of his 32nd birthday. “[TLDEF] has been apologetic that I’ve experienced this, and I feel like they’re very sincere. Wishing someone didn’t go through this terrible thing doesn’t remove them from accountability and the opportunity to do better.”

“We sue companies for not providing comprehensive care for employees to do the work that fulfills this mission, and yet, I’m here experiencing the very same thing,” Francois added. “There are currently no systems in place where there should be for employees and my coworkers and my comrades to fight denial letters.”

Francois said United Healthcare Oxford has “some of the biggest and broadest exclusions” in LGBTQ healthcare.

Casey Bohannon, an organizer for TLDEF’s Union and an associate for TLDEF’s Name Change Project. Jon Bradley/Bradley Visual Co.

Casey Bohannon, a queer transgender man and one of the organizers behind the union, said the first red flag to him was when management did not take action after a former trans employee faced a similar denial in health coverage.

“It kind of felt hypocritical… especially because we have the Trans Health Project, which fights for trans inclusive healthcare in the industry,” Bohannon said.

Still, Bohannon said he’s “over the moon” that the organization is taking steps to acknowledge the labor effort. He hopes negotiations continue in a positive direction.

“Leadership understands that we are unionizing because we want what’s best for the organization,” Bohannon, an associate for TLDEF’s Name Change Project, told Gay City News. “We all love our work here, our clients, and our fellow colleagues, and I think TLDEF is showing that they are open to change.”

TLDEF employees said they spoke up about these issues during one-on-ones with their managers and at monthly all-staff meetings. Bohannon said staffers also requested annual reviews to gauge employees’ performance and sustain the organization’s growth.

However, he said leadership appeared to be dragging their feet in addressing their concerns, contributing to their decision to organize.

“Our main problem [was], once it reached the senior level, executive level, that feedback didn’t go anywhere,” he said, noting that management wanted to delay those issues to next year.

Francois hopes the unionization action can help uplift the needs of transgender workers who are often forgotten about in the workforce.

“We live in a moment where there’s more trans visibility, and that visibility is structured in a way that is only in entertainment,” Francois said. “We get this narrative that you can only be trans and non-binary and fabulous when you’re making other people happy.”

He added, “We need adequate health insurance in workplaces that are nine to five because so many more of us work in those places. We exist in nine to five work cultures.”

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