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Op-ed: The Long, Powerful History Between Labor and LGBT Activists

Op-ed: The Long, Powerful History Between Labor and LGBT Activists


It is time to renew the historical (and oft-forgotten) relationship between the LGBT and labor movements.

Woven throughout the history of the LGBT civil rights movement, the support of organized labor has been the thread that ties it all together. For nearly a century, LGBT activists and the labor movement have built a worldwide relationship based on shared struggles, similar goals, and common values. The premiere of the British movie Pride -- about London LGBT activists who came to the rescue for Welsh mine workers' families during a long strike -- provides a great time to remind our community that this is but one story in an ongoing history between labor and LGBT people.

When it comes to fighting for the right to have a decent-paying job free from discrimination and undue hardship, American LGBT workers has no longer-term ally than organized labor. But today, in a time of unprecedented support for LGBT relationships and civil rights, labor is under constant assault while the LGBT community remains largely silent as our oldest friend's rights are systematically eroded.

Our common struggle with the labor movement goes back to at least the 1930s, when the National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards elected Stephen Blair, an openly gay man, as its vice president. The union was derided as, "red, black, and queer" for its strong liberal views and embrace of minority rights. Blair's life partner, Frank McCormick, was a vice president of the California Congress of Industrial Organizations and was instrumental during the West Coast longshoremen's strike in 1934, which led to to the unionization of every port on the west coast.

Continuing into the '40s, Harry Hay, a longshoreman from the Bay Area in California, founded the Mattachine Society in 1948. Hay used the knowledge and skills he gained as a union organizer to put the group on the map and drive its success. Incidentally, in the 1970s, Hay founded the Radical Faeries movement, which still exists today.

In the mid-1970s, Harvey Milk and the Teamsters banded together for the Coors beer boycotts and Harvey's successful bid for San Francisco supervisor. At that point, labor and LGBT activists had already shared 40 years of history, but Harvey and the Teamsters took our shared struggle to the next level by creating a political movement that showed how our power multiplies if we band together and organize.

The Labor + LGBT powerhouse repeated this success when they worked together in 1978 to defeat the Briggs Initiative, which sought to bar gay people from teaching in California public schools. Shortly after, in 1979, the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest federation of labor unions, made its first call for a federal law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

For almost 40 years, union contracts have included discrimination protections for LGBT workers and today, because there is no federal nondiscrimination law on the books, a union contract is still the only legally enforceable protection available to LGBT people in most states. Labor remains one of the strongest voices pushing for a federal law to ban employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Workers in unions make, on average, 30 percent more than non-union workers and are 59 percent more likely to have employer-provided health care. The gender pay gap is significantly lower for women who are members of unions. LGBT workers also enjoy better pay and benefits in union workplaces in addition to the added discrimination protections inherent in every union contract. In a time when the average pay of a CEO has gone from 48 times that of the average worker in 1980 to 331 times that of the average worker today, these differences matter greatly.

With all of that shared history and collaboration, one might think that the relationship between LGBT people and labor would be unbreakable. Sadly, many in LGBT people don't realize that labor is our most enduring and hardworking ally, let alone that labor is in a fight for its very existence.

The cause of labor is the cause of every LGBT person. Our shared struggle is one of the most critical movements in America today. The right to work, get paid a living wage, and share in the fruits of your labor is being eroded week by week. Collective bargaining is the only tool in our tool belt that allows us to push back against this tide of income inequality and demand our fair share of the economic pie.

From union-busting corporations to state legislative efforts to dismantle workers' rights, America's unions have never faced attacks from so many angles at once. Far too often, the LGBT community turns a blind eye to these struggles. In Wisconsin, during the attempts to break up the state employees' union, the LGBT presence was minimal and few national LGBT organizations spoke out. In the current fight to break up teachers unions, the silence is deafening. Labor unions were right there beside us heralding the triumph of the Windsor decision that overturned part of the Defense of Marriage Act and has long called for the law to be repealed, but when the Harris v. Quinn decision delivered another blow to unions, only one LGBT organization bothered to issue a statement.

During the summer of 1984, LGBT activists in the United Kingdom came together to make sure the families of striking workers didn't go hungry and could pay their bills while they fought for better working conditions. Thirty years later, American LGBT activists ignore the struggles of working men and women -- including LGBT workers who are benefitting from their union membership. We demand passage of employment protections for our community but ignore the larger picture that would benefit all American workers.

Time and again, state by state, as lawmakers and corporations have colluded to erode labor rights, the LGBT community has turned its head and looked the other way. If we cannot stand in solidarity with one of our oldest supporters, what is the message we are sending to the myriad allies we're creating today?

Are we simply opportunistic friends whose relationship depends on what the other side has to offer and nothing more? Solidarity isn't transactional, it's transformational. "An injury to one is an injury to all" is more than just a slogan for the labor movement; it's a rallying cry for the core principle that underlies everything for which unions stand.

We should adopt it as our own.

JERAME DAVIS is the interim executive director of Pride at Work, an LGBT constituency group of organized labor. Find out more at, and follow Davis on Twitter @Jerame.

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