Throughout his many political campaigns in the 1970s, my old friend and mentor began every speech with the words, “Hi, my name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you!” He always urged us to join the movement, get involved and speak out.
Those words were also a repudiation of the old slander against LGBTQ people as abusers of children, then being repeated by Anita Bryant and other right-wing “Christian” demagogues determined to roll back the few legal and legislative advances we had achieved. “Homosexuals can’t reproduce, so they must recruit our children,” was a popular claim of the far-right then as it is again today.
Harvey’s other signature phrase, now well-recorded by history, was “You gotta give them hope.”
If Harvey was still alive, I think he would be amazed by the progress made in the decades after his assassination. I think he would be alarmed by the challenges ahead. I know he would want to give us hope and the courage to stand up and fight.
The United States Supreme Court, now dominated by an extreme conservative majority, has already struck down abortion rights and indicated clearly that marriage equality is threatened. When I was a young man working with Harvey Milk, sexual relations between consenting adults of the same sex were still illegal in most of the country. LGBTQ people were routinely entrapped, arrested, tortured and imprisoned. This Supreme Court appears likely to seek to return us to those days.
I am an old man now and most of the comrades and friends of my youthful years are long gone. When I consider the future and the forces arrayed against us, I am frightened for the young people now growing up during a time of such hatred and division. Sometimes I despair.
For over 15 years, most of my work has been within the labor movement through my union, UNITE HERE International. We represent hundreds of thousands of hospitality, casino, airport, and food service workers across the U.S. and Canada. Our members are mostly women of color, immigrants, and include many LGBTQ workers. For decades, UNITE HERE has fought for — and won — contracts with major employers that provide health care and protections against workplace discrimination and abuse for LGBTQ workers, even in the deep South and other states where no local or state legal protections exist.
Two years ago, the COVID pandemic shut down the travel and hospitality industry. Most of UNITE HERE’s members were laid off or furloughed. Some of the most vulnerable workers in our economy faced disaster as a bitterly divided nation approached the critical election of 2020.
Despite the devastation of COVID, UNITE HERE led the largest union door-to-door canvassing operation in the country. With 1,700+ out of work hotel housekeepers, cooks, and casino workers canvassing, we reached the doors of 3 million voters in the key battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, and Florida.
UNITE HERE was the first organization to do door-to-door canvassing safely. By showing the whole country that safe, “contactless” canvassing was possible — and critical for mobilizing infrequent voters — UNITE HERE set the stage for other progressive groups and the Democratic Party to do the same.
Of the 440,000 infrequent voters that UNITE HERE identified to vote for Biden, 125,000 Nevada, Arizona, and Pennsylvania voters had not voted in 2016. In two of our battlegrounds, the number of these voters exceeded the margin of victory: 42,411 in Nevada and 48,364 in Arizona.
In the first weeks of January 2021, the historic special U.S. Senate election in Georgia was to determine the balance of power in the Senate.
UNITE HERE led a program to reach 1.6 million doors in the six weeks leading up to the runoff election day in Georgia. UNITE HERE’s effort was one part of a statewide coalitional effort that in all hit an unprecedented 10 million doors. Over 1,000 of UNITE HERE’s union housekeepers, cooks, dishwashers and airport concessions workers — again mostly women and people of color — canvassed full-time in the Atlanta metro area and Columbus. UNITE HERE knocked on over 1.6 million doors as part of a larger 10 million-knock statewide effort to get out the vote for Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.
Each day, union members had 15,000 face-to-face conversations with Georgians about the runoff race. UNITE HERE ran the largest union field program in Georgia and identified and made voting plans with 250,000 voters who supported the Democratic candidates; 76% of the voters UNITE HERE identified were Black; 87% were people of color.
UNITE HERE gives me hope.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the November 2022 midterm elections. With control of both houses of Congress at stake, we face the real possibility of a Congress and Supreme Court firmly in the hands of a political party that has renounced democracy, embraced authoritarianism, and is determined to turn back the clock for women, workers, and LGBTQ people. The potential consequences for Black people, indigenous communities, and other people of color are horrific. The implications for our attempts to address the ongoing issues of climate change, income inequality, and racism are equally disturbing.
Many of us have been frustrated by the legislative process in Washington recently, and some of us for decades. We want bolder action, braver leaders, and real reforms. Many of us are deep in despair for our country and see no hope that we might yet pull back from utter disaster. But frustration and despair must not be excuses to surrender. We must act, we must resist.
This fall, UNITE HERE will again deploy thousands of workers and volunteers to canvass voters, staff phone banks and get out the vote in the key states of Nevada, Arizona and Pennsylvania.
We are offering full-time PAID positions from now through Election Day. We will help with housing and provide the very best possible training. We have proven repeatedly that we know how to do this, and we want you to join us.
My friend, the author Rebecca Solnit, has written, “To hope is to give yourself to the future — and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”
At UNITE HERE we have hope.
And we are here to recruit you!
Cleve Jones will host a Facebook Live event on Wednesday, July 27 at 5:30pm Pacific/8:30pm Eastern for anyone interested in joining the UNITE HERE campaign program. https://www.facebook.com/clevej/
Cleve Jones is a long-time labor and LGBTQ+ activist, mentored by Harvey Milk. Jones is the co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, and author of When We Rise: My Life in the Movement. Since 2005, Jones has been a Community and Political Coordinator with UNITE HERE, the North American hospitality workers’ union.
Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, Equal Pride.