Queer Liberation Is a Labor Issue

Miriam Frank

Today, corporations see Pride Month as another chance to sell their products. But the greatest gains for the LGBTQ movement came through fighting corporations, challenging workplace discrimination, and building unions.

The Citi employee float at the New York City Pride Parade on June 25, 2017. (Getty Images)

Interview by
Meghan Brophy

Throughout the past few months, activists across the United States have called for kicking cops and corporations out of June’s annual Pride marches. This is the latest chapter in a long struggle to raise the issues of working-class queer people, queer people of color, and other groups that have been left out of the mainstream LGBTQ movement. However, there’s one critical part of this fight that hasn’t gotten as much attention: the history of queer labor activism.

Unions are some of the most powerful vehicles in the fight against workplace discrimination and harassment, and stand as some of the earliest supporters of domestic partnership and, later, marriage equality. Queer workers have played important roles within unions, valiantly fighting against both anti-queer sentiments within unions and union-busting from bosses in queer-majority workplaces. As Pride month comes to an end, this history is more important than ever.

Miriam Frank, author of Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America, has interviewed hundreds of queer union members and officials about their struggles at work and beyond. Meghan Brophy, a student-labor activist at Barnard College, interviewed Frank about queer workers’ victories and challenges within the labor movement, the fight to organize queer-majority workplaces, and recent efforts to bring Pride back to its militant origins.

Meghan Brophy

Earlier this month, Bernie Sanders tweeted about workplace discrimination against queer workers and the importance of unions. He received backlash from those who alleged he was reducing our issues to class and that unions were disconnected from queer people’s issues. Out in the Union thoroughly dismantles the idea that these are separate struggles. Could you give a broad outline of the intersections of labor organizing and queer liberation?

Miriam Frank

If you’re working in a factory, in a public school, in municipal government, or in a hospital, these are all places where unions have been active and successful. These are also places where queer people work. One of the truths of our world and slogans of our movement is that we are everywhere. There really aren’t a lot of places where you can say there are no gay people. There are gay bosses and gay people leading corporations, but you can’t say there aren’t gay people working in the mines, in the building trades, as housekeepers — we are! The macro thing about being queer is that we are everywhere, and more often than not, we are working everywhere.

When Studs Turkel wrote his wonderful book of interviews with working people, he never asked that question in the 1960s, but that’s one of the reasons I started interviewing people about working while gay, working while being a lesbian, or being a union official while being a closeted gay man. How did that affect people as workers? How did that affect how they got along with people in their organizations? Everybody I interviewed was involved with a union in some way or another, and all of the people knew full well what it was like to be without a union. They knew that it was different than what work is like when you do have a union and when you have a contract. And unions aren’t just the contract you sign and the wage increase you get, but it’s also an ethic of how people relate to each other in the workplace.

I was living in San Francisco in 1981, and union activists in the hospitals were among the first to get involved in talking to the public about AIDS. Queer activists in the Castro, the gay neighborhood in San Francisco, had been at the center of the struggle against Coors. The Coors boycott was a real conduit to the development of AIDS activism. There were people with AIDS who had been involved with this beer boycott, people who were losing their lovers, it was all connected!

The domestic partnership fight started with gay couples wanting to marry, and that was not possible by law, and some cities approved of domestic partnerships and certain civil rights connected with that. These rights were very minimal things — unless you needed them, and then they were absolutely life and death. Visiting your partner in the hospital, domestic partnership made that possible. What that meant for people that were sick with AIDS, and were not in good standing with their families of origin, and did not have a husband or a wife, was that their domestic partners could visit them in the hospital and help make decisions.

By 1985 or so, there were movements all over the West Coast to have domestic partnership! That made a lot of sense, people were worried about dying and what would happen to their lovers. The need for civil rights, the need for health care rights, all of those things were supported by unions.

The teachers played a role in this fight too. They had to go into the classrooms and look at what was going on in the curriculum. They had to ask “What do we say about gay people in San Francisco?” There were all of these different books like Heather has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate and there was blowback everywhere at all times, but unions have the resources to sustain a struggle.

Bernie Sanders has a Marxist understanding of the working class and the capitalist class, and it has stood him well in his politics. Sometimes, he has a less sophisticated framing of women’s issues or queer issues, but he’s deeply sympathetic. It’s not an accident that Vermont was one of the first places to allow gay marriage, and he’s learned a lot from the young people recently. I don’t use Twitter, so I probably wouldn’t have been very useful to him when he was trying to defend that remark.

Meghan Brophy

Over the past few years, we have seen successful campaigns at sex shops with a majority-queer staff, like Babeland and Pleasure Chest, where fighting homophobia and transphobia at work was central to workers’ organizing drives. Do you see parallels with earlier struggles to organize at majority-queer workplaces, such as the healthcare workers in the AIDS clinics described in your book?

Miriam Frank

Absolutely! I think it’s great and I also don’t think it’s an accident that the union that is organizing the sex shops, RWDSU, is led by a gay man.

I wrote a whole piece about organizing the AIDS clinics, and those were amazing struggles. It was really interesting how the workers at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and the Whitman Walker Clinic faced management. They needed a union. At the Whitman Walker Clinic, in Washington, DC, there were two organizers who got people ready to fight, Joe Izzo and Bill Taylor. Bill Taylor started working at Whitman Walker after he was fired from his career as an air traffic controller. He was not only a member, but he had been an officer in PATCO. After the disaster of the PATCO strike, this one guy who knew he was gay decided to come out, break up with his wife, work for the Whitman Walker Clinic, and he organized it.

Joe Izzo and Bill Taylor were partly successful because they were in Washington D.C. and one of the clinic’s board members was Bill Olwell, a leader from the United Food and Commercial Workers and a gay man. He was about to be elected the chair of the board of the clinic. There was going to be a big event to open a new facility and the union said to Bill Olwell that they were going to strike until they got an election. Every campaign to form a union has some crazy things happen, and this was one of those situations where everything converged and they won.

A more typical situation was the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, where the rich people in town were in control of the board and the administration. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis had people on their board who were union busters. Those fights were very hard. The workers who wanted a union there didn’t have a lot of people on their side. There was a lot of ambivalence in the AIDS community about whether there should be a union at GMHC. The board of the GMHC went to a union-busting law firm and got all kinds of advice. They stalled, investigated every vote, and fired people. The mission that people were taking when they got on staff at these clinics was “I’m finally going to do something for our people.” Union busters worked on that guilt. Meanwhile, the board was rich as sin.

Meghan Brophy

What do you see as some of the most pertinent historic victories and challenges of organizing within the labor movement for queer workers?

Miriam Frank

Getting domestic partner benefits in the early years was a major victory. Later, unions were heavily involved in gay marriage campaigns, especially here in New York. Those things are close to me because these have impacted the places I’ve worked. Unions have also taken up the fight against harassment and discrimination in the workplace before many other movements.

While it was possible to organize a cafe here or a sex shop there before, the masses of people in queer-majority workplaces were not prepared to take it up until more recently. It’s not on them, it’s on something much larger. Who is educating people in the United States about unions? Nobody!

There are certainly challenges because while class solidarity is big, there are still divisions. Before the union election at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an official from 1199 came to talk with the workers. When he arrived, he was spaced out and he couldn’t talk to these people; they were faggots who were looking sick. They were workers, but they were also people with AIDS. The workers who came to talk to him were just not impressed, and they knew this guy wasn’t going to lead them into battle with management.

I know this wonderful guy, Gary Kapinowski, who was a former Chrysler worker that got a job manufacturing bathtubs. He was as queer as can be, a queer Detroit factory rat, and he got baited during the election campaign in the union. He wanted to look into the pensions — he knew that a corrupt faction in the union was involved in some troubling activity around the pensions.

His whole family was in the union, and his opponents exposed him as a gay man to his father, his uncle, and others. It was just a terrible thing. People liked him very much, but his opponents said “here’s the votes, we’ll take this box down to the office.” Gary knows that they took the box to the office, but that votes were changed or thrown away. He left Detroit and went to Philadelphia, he stopped working in factories, he got an associates degree and became a lab tech. He became a founder of the AFSCME local that represents workers at Temple University. As I said before, we are everywhere!

Meghan Brophy

Newer organizations like the Reclaim Pride Coalition in New York City have emerged in response to the corporatization of Pride in an effort to reinvigorate struggles for working class queer people, people of color, and all of those who have been sidelined by the mainstream movement. Based on your research and experience, what would you say to activists and organizers in this milieu who want to build a stronger relationship with the labor movement?

Miriam Frank

Two weeks ago, I got out of the subway at Union Square and saw one of the big banks. They had neon rainbows all over the ATM machines, and I thought, “I’ve been marching all of these years for that? Of course not!”

This is capitalism, this is the United States of America, and if anyone can make a buck off of it, they will. I’m sad about it, and we also went through this with feminism. We thought that feminism would bring us socialism, but if you can’t bring your left politics to the party, you’re never going to get what you want! And you’re never going to get what you want anyway if the corporate people have their way. The idea of reclaiming pride is worrying capitalists because they want to break that up.

They should bring their cause to the AFL-CIO, which has been wonderful on gay rights ever since we told them they had to be! I don’t think it’s very difficult to say to pro-labor organizations that this is very important. The AFL-CIO is not exactly anti-capitalist, but they understand how corporations want to take over movements and advertise them.

I think people are very angry that this movement has been used as an advertising tool, and they have to start thinking about who their allies are. Who is not selling pride for profit? The labor movement. Unions are trying to have a fair workplace where an injury to one is an injury to all while the corporations are trying to make a buck off of people’s dignity.

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Miriam Frank taught humanities courses at New York University and led labor and women’s studies programs at Detroit’s Wayne County Community College. Her book, Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America, studies intersections of working-class politics and LGBT lives.

Meghan Brophy is an undergraduate student at Barnard College. She is an organizer with Student-Worker Solidarity (USAS Local 12) and New York City Democratic Socialists of America.

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