Union and Queer

Portside Date:
Author: Jim Grossfeld
Date of source:
The American Prospect

“It was an incredible lesson to me very early in my union life about the need to own who I am, because the union-busters would use anything.”

As a young union organizer in the 1980s, Mary Kay Henry came out as a lesbian at a time when few in the labor movement felt it was safe to. And for good reason: For generations, LGBTQ+ people had been every bit as vilified in their unions as they were in the community. Employers routinely took advantage of this to undercut queer organizers. But what Henry discovered was that once she came out to the workers she was organizing, often being the first queer person they’d ever met, their homophobia began to evaporate.

Now, as president of the two-million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Henry leads what many consider to be one of the strongest unions in America. It is also one of the most LGBTQ+ friendly. It’s given her a unique understanding of the relationship between queers and the labor movement, especially when it comes to organizing.

“There’s a fearlessness of [LGBTQ] organizers that’s born out of being in the closet—that’s a place of fear,” Henry said. “Any worker who’s been marginalized has an advantage in thinking about power,” she adds.

That’s an assessment that’s being tested every day, as unions, whose share of the labor force has been in a free fall since 1965, struggle to sign up potential members in workplaces where, increasingly, many employees identify as queer (currently, just over 7 percent of Americans so identify). Scheduling, wages, and health care obviously matter as much to queer workers as to anyone else. Indeed, these and other issues hit LGBTQ+ workers particularly hard.

The most visible of these organizing campaigns is the SEIU-backed drive to unionize Starbucks. In June, workers at 150 shops struck to protest the company’s opposition to decorating stores in honor of Pride Month. But unionizing the coffee shop chain is only one of a series of union efforts that mobilize queer workers.

One such effort was evident last year at Missouri’s Daniel Boone Regional Library system, where workers voted to organize with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). “We [LGBTQ+] workers are very used to working together, building community, being in community with one another,” said librarian Michael Mele. “When there is so much hate coming from the outside, it’s very easy to stand arm in arm with one another. I think that makes it much easier to organize.”

Reflecting on their successful 2022 organizing drive with AFSCME at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Tat Scott said, “We’re used to advocating for ourselves, advocating for each other—in this case for our colleagues.”

LGBTQ+ people experience discrimination at a rate that few Americans who aren’t racial or ethnic minorities themselves can appreciate.

Issues of particular concern to LGBTQ+ workers can foster unionization. This summer in New York City, Avery Mathews, a bookseller at the Barnes & Noble store in Union Square, participated in a successful organizing campaign with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Mathews said that one problem particularly infuriating to LGBTQ+ workers was the failure of the company to provide training that would help them deal with abusive customers. It was no surprise that queer workers stood together to have a union. “It’s ingrained in our own culture,” said Mathews, “going all the way back to Stonewall.”

LGBTQ+ people experience discrimination at a rate that few Americans who aren’t racial or ethnic minorities themselves can appreciate. One 2022 survey found that half of LGBTQI workers reported experiencing some form of workplace discrimination. Another estimates that 33 percent of LGBTQ+ employees were not open about being LGBTQ+ to anyone in the workplace. Still other research found that 16 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual workers reported losing a job because of their sexuality. And during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, LGBTQ+ workers were 36 percent more likely to have been laid off or had their hours cut than other workers.

That last figure underscores the fact that most LGBTQ+ Americans are working-class people. The industries that hire them most are restaurants and food services, hospitals, education, and retail. Though the American Rescue Plan and other government initiatives dramatically cut poverty among LGBTQ+ people, a far greater percentage of queers than other Americans continue to live in poverty.

In the society at large, the share of Americans who believe “gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults should be legal” has soared from 32 percent in 1986 to 79 percent today. The rise in support for same-sex relations is paralleled by the rise in the approval rating for unions, which stood at 58 percent in 1985 and was at 71 percent in 2022.

One person who understands what these numbers mean is Jerame Davis, the executive director of Pride at Work. Founded in 1994 by a small group of LGBTQ+ union activists meeting in New York, P@W now has 29 chapters and the backing of 19 different unions plus the AFL-CIO.

“The core tenet we preach is that a union contract is the best protection LGBTQ+ people can achieve at work,” Davis said, adding that, as the polling data shows, “younger people in the LGBTQ+ community have an understanding of unions that older folks don’t have.” (Polling released by the AFL-CIO last week showed that the approval rating for unions among 18-29-year-olds stood at 88 percent.)

AS A MENTEE OF THE LEGENDARY HARVEY MILK and an architect of the Coors beer boycott in San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ community, Cleve Jones has seen the power the labor movement and the queer community can achieve when they work together.

“We viewed the boycott as a way to build an alliance with the least likely union imaginable,” Jones said, pointing out that the relationship the LGBTQ+ community had built with the Teamsters was crucial to defeating the Briggs Amendment—a proposition on the California state ballot in 1978 that would have barred gays and lesbians from working in the state’s public schools.

“The seeds that had been planted with the Coors boycott and the Teamsters really germinated, because, suddenly, this was an issue of concern to SEIU, which represented school custodial staff, teachers, and others.”

Jones, who’s now on the staff of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (UNITE HERE), is seeing a resurgence of pro-union sentiment in the LGBTQ+ community. “With all these attacks on the rights that we’ve won, more and more people are understanding that the contracts negotiated by unions like HERE have clauses protecting workers against discrimination and harassment and abuse.”

The role of corporations in the queer community has long been debated.

There is one corner of the queer community that Jones and other LGBTQ+ progressives hold up for criticism: activists who’ve aligned themselves with large corporations.

“There’s this filter that makes it difficult for them to see marketing campaigns for what they are. They mistake them for civil rights advancements,” Jones said.

The role of corporations in the queer community has long been debated, especially during Pride Month where many businesses contribute heavily to parades and festivals. The question is particularly important now that more than 700 bills have been put forward in state legislatures to strip queer people of their rights.

This year, the largest organization claiming to represent LGBTQ+ people, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), has declared a national state of emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans. Unfortunately, HRC hasn’t put forward a strategy for stopping the onslaught. Hopefully, it won’t be a replay of an earlier HRC effort that gathered the “signatures” of over 300 corporations on a petition stating their clear opposition to “harmful legislation aimed at restricting the access of LGBTQ+ people in society.” What HRC left out is that, according to researchers at Open Secrets, since January 2020 nine of the companies that “signed” the petition each steered at least $100,000, through their corporate PAC and treasury funds, to legislators who sponsored or signed anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. In contrast, more than 90 percent of U.S. union members belong to unions that support the Equality Act. This isn’t to say that the labor movement has been purged of homophobia, but the response to it is far different from what it was in the not-too-distant past.

“WHAT KIND OF DELEGATION IS THIS? They’ve got six open fags and only three AFL-CIO people!” Longtime AFL-CIO President George Meany’s sneering appraisal of a committee meeting at the 1972 Democratic National Convention didn’t surprise anyone. Meany, who reigned over the labor federation for 24 very long years, was the archetypical cigar-chomping labor boss with a track record of marked indifference to racial and sex discrimination within the labor movement even as he pledged the AFL-CIO’s support for civil rights legislation. But when it came to his contempt for LGBTQ+ people, Meany didn’t hold back. Neither did other labor leaders whose homophobia went unchallenged. Some of that bigotry lingers to this day, as Shane Larson of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) points out.

Larson has long been one of the most effective union lobbyists on Capitol Hill, someone who’s able to work with politicians with egos so big they won’t fit through the door. But nothing could have prepared him for a call he once received from Ed Mooney, one of the CWA’s regional vice presidents.

Peeved that Larson hadn’t returned an earlier call (he was on vacation at the time), Mooney launched into a homophobic tirade.

“Do you know who I am?! Do you know who I am?! Mooney shouted.

Larson answered, “You’re Ed Mooney.”

“I’m a vice president of this union,” he shot back. “I know who you are you are! You’re a cocksucking faggot!”

With the CWA convention taking place the following month and Mooney expected to run for president, the union’s executive board launched an investigation into his attack on Larson, as well as charges against Mooney from other minorities. Mooney’s defense? That he didn’t know Larson was gay and that he would never use the slur with CWA people he knew to be gay. He added that he used the term because he listens to “mobster audio books where the word is used.”

In the end, Mooney was chastised and told to take sensitivity training. More importantly, he was defeated at the convention in his bid to become CWA’s president, losing to Claude Cummings, who is now the union’s first African American president.

IT MAY BE THAT THE PERSON WHOSE STORY says the most about the labor movement’s changed relationship with queers is Liv, an electrician in Washington state.

“I worked for three years in HVAC [home heating and air conditioning]. Then I got laid off during the lockdown.” Out of work and with no savings to fall back on, Liv and her wife Elena moved in with Elena’s parents. Their stay ended abruptly once the parents learned Liv was queer and transgender. The two could have been destitute but for Liv’s membership in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

At first, Liv had been reluctant to reveal her gender identity to her fellow members. “I was really hesitant to get too involved with the union because there are a lot of conservative people in the trades,” Liv said. But once she did come out, Liv found more acceptance and support than she could have imagined. The union’s staff took it upon themselves to protect her from any harassment and dipped into its hardship fund to help the couple avoid going into debt to find housing.

“This union really cares about me as a person,” Liv reflected. “I can’t possibly go back to being non-union.” Maybe the best measure of Liv’s standing among her co-workers is that she now heads up the local’s political action committee.

Source URL: https://portside.org/2023-09-05/union-and-queer