by Anthony Mercando
It’s old news now, with Title IX funding days from being slashed in North Carolina, and Gov. McCrory making more and more statements about “open dialogue and not threats.” HB2 nipped spring in the bud here in North Carolina, but at least chased a winter’s funk that had refused to let go. It brought people into the streets to demand equal rights under the law in Greenville, Raleigh, and Charlotte.
HB2, proposed and approved during a hastily called “emergency session” of the General Assembly, limits the authority of city governments to pass ordinances in regards to discrimination and minimum wage, and most notably requires citizens to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate. It also forbids workers from bringing civil suit against their employers at the state level. There are other things, but this, in a nutshell, is the bundle of joy the Assembly dumped in our laps.
For what could easily be considered an “omni-bill,” it only garnered attention because it happened to target the LGBTQ community. Save the city-level politicians griping about the loss of power, the only people rallying to the mostly figurative barricades erected by this legislation were the trans community and its allies.
This isn’t a bad thing, by any standard. A triumph for the trans community is a triumph for all of us. The issue isn’t with the hundred or so people I stood with at city hall to protest HB2 or what they were saying, but rather the lack of attention towards other sections of the bill. I’m sure the bigoted man who spoke at last Monday’s city council meeting about “sharing the bathroom with a transgender” could agree that, if his boss fired him for sneezing the wrong way, he would like to have some legal recourse.
Workers in North Carolina cannot stand further erosion of their rights. There is, sadly, no true identity of the worker as a person who can work and make a living in this state. The vast majority of active voters have decided that their employers may do as they please with them. Labor lawyer and author Thomas Geoghegan was thinking of workers in the American southeast – not the militant UMW’s wildcat strikes, nor the Molly Maguires’ engagement in a shooting war with strikebreakers and vigilantes – when he recently told German students that Americans can be fired at any time, for any reason.
We’ve got so-called “right-to-work” laws in a region of the country that’s never seen a militant labor movement. The current generation has been brought up thinking terrible pay and no rights as an employee are the norm, that a “work or starve” society should be the norm, that entry-level jobs aren’t worthy of dignity or decent wages, and in some cases even that the struggles of countless labor organizers across a spectrum of ideologies are, at best, a troublesome footnote in history.
HB2 gives the left a perfect cause to unite around. It serves as the place for resistance to form, as it is copied and pasted into other state legislatures in the usual fashion, with key paraphrasing–if we’re lucky. The obviousness of its intent – to endorse second-class citizenship of trans citizens – will hopefully result in its repeal. Tuesday’s decision of the 4th District Court surely points in that direction.
While the world speaks of “bathroom bills” and tacks on the additional changes that HB2 gave us as an afterthought, good can still be done. The coverage on HB2 has disproportionately been focused on the most obvious section–the one denying basic human rights to trans people. However, the furor surrounding HB2 doesn’t address the destruction of the last major protection afforded workers: the freedom to bring suit against their employers on grounds of discrimination. Many workers in the US are unable to bring suit at any level, due to the insecurity and instability that results from losing a job; Thanks to HB and other laws like it, they will now be forced to pursue such claims by first challenging these laws themselves, which is the slowest and most expensive approach imaginable.
The result: Those are already in a tough place are finding themselves in an impossible one. Employees now face the difficulty, the runaround, the long arduous journey of taking an employer to court – where they will be already disadvantaged, since the employees do not hold the high ground in American society. But worse, they are guaranteed of nothing, other than legal fees and a reputation as a troublemaker that nobody will want to hire.
This is nothing new for the forces of division, just another cudgel in their toolbox. But we, as activists – as members of a society, workers, and individuals – all need to band together and stand against these attacks. An injury to one is an injury to all.
HB2’s attacks on workers are yet another blow against the struggling workers in this country. It has struck hardest at the 47 percent of workers who cannot afford an emergency costing $400. It has attacked those working multiple jobs and scraping by on low wages. It has attacked those who have had their positions cut down part-time hours, so their employers can avoid providing benefits. It silences people who are working full time yet still rely on government assistance to feed themselves and their families. nd let’s not forget the constant war on those very programs, which the war on workers has forced them to use, generally against their wishes.
Dignity can be hard to come by when society refuses to give you a modicum of respect. It’s even more elusive when your state and the ideological gang running it take away your chances to obtain it. HB2 makes sure you don’t get any ideas. HB2 tells you to thank your boss when wages are cut to the minimum. HB2 says, Keep your head down and your mouth shut–and keep hoping everything will work out in the long run.”
Especially in Greenville, where you can hardly walk two blocks without stumbling over a chain restaurant paying its workers substandard wages, people need to know the power they inherently hold. Regardless of their stance on the LGBTQ community, regardless of what they think of cities passing laws within their own jurisdictions, workers’ rights are under assault.
Here in Greenville, where our employers think they have the right to dictate our time on and off the clock; where our employers think they can turn us against each other in a race to the bottom, we can show them we won’t roll over. Do not expect PFLAG and the ACLU to do all the fighting for you.