Tara Paterson | CUPE Staff

Library worker Max Hare wasn’t necessarily out to their co-workers when CUPE 4948 negotiated a number of trans-inclusive provisions in their collective agreement at the start of 2020. Hare is agender (not identifying with any gender) and uses they/them pronouns. “I didn’t actively hide my identity at work, but I didn’t actively mention it either,” they said.

It wasn’t until Hare changed their name at the end of 2020 that people started asking more questions and they felt they could be more open at work. “Everyone was really great and supportive,” Hare said of their co-workers at the small Toronto library branch where they worked at the time. “When the collective agreement came out, it felt amazing to see all this gender-inclusive language,” they added. “It is so important for people to see themselves and their experiences respected and talked about in the collective agreement. It sends a signal to trans and non-binary workers that we matter to the union.”

Two years later, when Hare needed time off work to access gender-affirming surgery, they were able to get paid leave because CUPE 4948 had negotiated trans-affirming care leave – a benefit that has been a lifeline for many Two-Spirit, trans and non-binary workers who have access to it.

Lex Konnelly, a non-binary trans masculine teaching assistant and member of CUPE 3902, said if it weren’t for paid leave, they wouldn’t have been able to get top surgery. Konnelly spent four years on a waitlist for the procedure. When they were finally able to get a surgery date, they had to travel from Toronto to Montreal, which required taking time off work.

On top of the leave, Konnelly also made use of their local’s “trans fund,” which helped cover additional expenses. “The thing about gender-affirming care is that even if the procedure itself is covered, there are a whole host of other expenses around that experience – like travel – that without funding we rarely have resources to support,” said Konnelly.

Thania Vega, a non-binary member at CUPE 3903, agrees. Without their local’s trans fund, they said they would be carrying an additional $20,000 in debt.

Of course, many Two-Spirit, trans and non-binary people do not feel the need to pursue surgery. But for those who do, Konnelly reminds us, it is often “lifesaving” care. “To have that recognized in our collective agreement, and to be able to get the funding and take the leaves that we need to take is enormous,” they added. 

While these benefits are available to members of the handful of locals that have negotiated them, the vast majority of workers still don’t have paid transition leave or funding for transition-related expenses. Hailey Fielden, an educational assistant from CUPE 606 and diversity vice-president for CUPE BC, is one of them.

They said that figuring out how to get the money to cover costs and time off work for their partner – who is not unionized – and themself to care for him when he needed gender-affirming care last year was “a nightmare.” Contract language which provides for paid leave and expenses can significantly reduce the stress and hardship experienced by Two-Spirit, trans and non-binary workers. In July, CUPE launched Bargaining beyond the binary: A negotiating guide for trans inclusion and gender diversity, to help more locals fight for these types of provisions at the bargaining table.

The guide features sample collective agreement language on a range of issues including harassment, employment equity, gender-inclusive uniforms and dress codes, health benefits, gender-neutral facilities, inclusive terminology, and gender-affirming care leave. It also includes external resources to help bargaining teams learn more about gender diversity and a glossary to help workers understand terms that might be new to them.

It is meant as a tool for all locals, not just those that already have out Two-Spirit, trans and non-binary members. In fact, bargaining gender inclusion might be what allows members to feel safe to come out at work or in their union in the first place.

After CUPE 4948 ratified the agreement that included gender-inclusive language and paid gender-affirming care leave, Vice-President Emma Lee said she received several acknowledgements from members saying they never thought they’d feel safe being themselves at work. “They wrote to me and said how much this meant to them, how they could finally come out, and how it made them want to get involved in the union,” Lee said.

Lee was clear that even locals that don’t have any trans members (that they know of) should ensure protections and supports are in place now. Waiting for a worker to come out or for a Two-Spirit, trans or non-binary person to be hired is too late. Gender diverse workers shouldn’t be forced to wait for the next round of bargaining to address issues they shouldn’t have to face in the first place.

Even with the benefits that bargaining provides, it is important to remember that negotiating inclusive language isn’t enough to ensure safe and equitable workplaces for gender diverse workers. As Konnelly puts it, “advocating for Two-Spirit, trans and non-binary workers isn’t only important at the bargaining table and it isn’t something that ends with language in the collective agreement.” They want cisgender (non-trans) workers to understand that transphobia is so prevalent “we need that solidarity all the time, every day.”

Indeed, CUPE’s own research has shown that many trans and non-binary workers are subjected to frequent misgendering and other forms of harassment from co-workers and managers. Workplace harassment is usually even more severe for trans and non-binary people who are Indigenous, Black, racialized, persons with disabilities and/or women. Bargaining the best collective agreement won’t be enough to effectively combat transphobia if workers themselves aren’t equipped to challenge it in the day-to-day.

Hare, Fielden and Vega all emphasize the importance of education as a tool to compliment bargaining. They have all seen firsthand how training provided by their locals has increased awareness and respect in their workplaces and among their members. Vega noted that the impact is often more powerful when it comes from the union. And CUPE will be piloting a course on creating safer spaces for Two-Spirit, trans and non-binary workers this fall.

It is also important “to support trans leadership and maintain a strong connection with trans members in the local,” said Konnelly. Especially since issues that Two-Spirit, trans and non-binary workers might be facing will evolve between bargaining rounds. “And not to treat these issues as peripheral,” Vega insisted. “These are health care issues. It is about building a culture that understands that workers go through stuff that impacts their lives,” they added.

When asked what advice they had for locals looking to negotiate trans-inclusive collective agreement language, all members we spoke with had the same response: “Just do it!” Don’t wait. Reach out to locals who have already started. Do your research. Bargaining beyond the binary is a great place to start. 

Download CUPE’s guide Bargaining beyond the binary: A negotiating guide for trans inclusion and gender diversity.