National Center for Transgender Equality Recognizes Unionization Drive

Staff members at the National Center for Transgender Equality are forming a union.
National Center For Trans Equality

The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), a national non-profit advocacy group with a strong presence in Washington, DC, is recognizing its workers’ union drive amid calls for more diverse leadership and transparency in its decision-making processes.

NCTE’s board and management on November 1 voted to voluntarily recognize the organization’s union, dubbed NCTE United, following years of allegations that some of the organization’s top leaders have fostered an inequitable work environment.

NCTE’s executive director, Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, an out Latinx transgender man who replaced NCTE’s founding director Mara Keisling this summer, issued a statement of support for the company’s unionizing drive.

“The National Center for Transgender Equality supports the employees’ right to form a union and believe that by voluntarily recognizing their efforts, we will become a stronger organization and a more successful advocate for social justice,” Heng-Lehtinen said in a written statement. “We look forward to working in good faith toward a successful first contract.”

With the organization’s apparent backing, NCTE United is ready to put pressure on management for pay equity, create more transparent communication at all levels in the workplace, hold people accountable for discrimination, and ramp up hiring efforts of Black trans people and individuals of color in leadership positions.

In 2019, dozens of staff members left NCTE, citing the group’s refusal to recognize their union and complaints of racism within the organization.

“These issues were brought before executive numerous times over the years in formal and informal settings,” staff members wrote in an open letter published by Out in 2019. “While plans and proposals were put forward by executive, they rarely yielded results and never amounted to the real change many of us feel the organization needed and transgender people deserved.”

D. Ojeda, a member of the union and policy advocate at NCTE, said organizers are building on the advocacy of former members.

“This organization got really shook in 2019, but it needed to be shaken,” said Ojeda, who joined NCTE last year. “This is an issue seen in the entire movement, where white people, in particular, will hide under their oppressed identities and don’t hold themselves accountable…The public would not have understood what was happening if not for the organizing efforts in 2019.”

Employees are working on the unionization drive with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU), which represents more than 40 nonprofits across the US.

“Congratulations to NCTE United,” NPEU President Katie Barrows said in a written statement. “It took courage for NCTE’s staff to organize for a voice in the new chapter of the organization. NCTE United represents the tenacity and resilience of working people, and we are proud to stand with them. We are glad NCTE management has chosen to work collaboratively with their staff union to rectify past injustices and look forward to signing a voluntary recognition agreement.”

Barrows told Gay City News NCTE’s unionizing drive comes at a time when employees are holding non-profits accountable for low wages and poor working conditions across the industry.

Ojeda, who is based in the DC suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, said they are making approximately $66,000 per year and are looking forward to receiving a higher salary. Burdened by student loans, high rent, and other bills, Ojeda said that living “paycheck to paycheck” makes it difficult to focus on their job.

The organization’s renewed support for the union did not surprise Ojeda, who noted that NCTE’s new leadership is more on board with the changes.

“This is something we all wanted to fix…We have people in positions now that want NCTE to move forward,” Ojeda told Gay City News. “But that wouldn’t have happened if folks didn’t get called out.”

Other groups have also ramped up organizing efforts as of late. Last month, the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF) quickly voted to recognize the organization’s union after two trans employees had their gender-affirming surgeries denied on the company’s health insurance plan. In 2019, employees at Housing Works, an organization serving 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.

Looking back on NCTE’s controversial past, Ojeda said unionizing allows them to have a “seat at the table” and provides a “glimmer of hope” for transgender individuals working to drive similar changes in their workplaces.

“They’re going to be some wounds that will never heal from what happened in 2019,” Ojeda recalls. “But as a staff, we wanted to do right by the community that we’re a part of, and while we can’t change what happened, we can move forward with collective power.”

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