It may come as a shock to many in our community, but the holiday we observe over this long weekend wasn’t created to celebrate the end of summer with a trip to the beach for one last three-day romp in the sun. While the holiday does mark the change of the season, it’s not called “End of Summer Day” or “Let’s Go to the Beach Weekend” — it’s called Labor Day.
After a year of further progress in our fight for full equality, it is important to remember the critical role the labor movement has played in that progress and how important its partnership has been to LGBT equality.
Labor stands with those who need lifting up to find a better station in life. The continued strength and vibrancy of the labor movement is just as important to our goal of full equality today as it was when the first collective bargaining agreement was signed that protected workers from sexual orientation discrimination.
It’s great that corporations are coming out to support LGBT equality in droves, but their newfound support has more to do with increased profit margins than standing up for an ideal. Labor was with us before it was cool and hip to be pro-LGBT – and now that our political and social stars are on the rise, we need to remember that labor’s fight is our fight.
Now that the LGBT movement has all this newfound cachet in corporate America, why isn’t more of our community pressing labor’s cause in solidarity with their own? Are we that kind of friend?
There from the Beginning
Our shared history isn’t taught or widely shared, but the labor movement has been with us in our march for full equality at many critical moments.
- In the 1930s, the union that represented workers on luxury liners included among its leaders the openly gay Stephen R. Blair. They were derided as “red, black and queer” for their leftist politics, racial integration and the large number of gay members, but that didn’t intimidate Stephen Blair and his fellow union members. A sign in the union hall proclaimed, “Race-baiting, Red-baiting, and Queer-Baiting is Anti-Union.”
- Early in his political career, the Teamsters, the Machinists and the building trades unions endorsed LGBT legend Harvey Milk. The “hardest of the hard hats,” as Harvey would call them, gave him a critical boost in his political career at just the right time. The support was mutual; Harvey helped Teamsters organize the successful Coors boycott in bars throughout the Castro.
- In 1970 the executive council of the American Federation of Teachers passed a resolution that denounced discrimination against teachers who were persecuted for their sexual orientation. In 1978, a coalition of gay and union activists was formed in California to defeat the Briggs amendment, which would have banned gays from teaching in public schools.
- Since 1975, it has been standard for unions to bargain contracts that include discrimination protections. For decades, most unions have negotiated domestic partner benefits.
- In 1979, the AFL-CIO – the largest federation of unions in the world – unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the enactment of federal legislation banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Today the labor movement is a key supporter in the effort to pass ENDA.
- Unions have strongly supported the fight for marriage equality; most major unions have adopted pro-marriage equality policy positions. Labor has also provided both funding and manpower in the state campaigns for marriage equality.
- Labor is at the forefront of pushing for comprehensive transgender health care coverage at the workplace. Several major unions have passed membership resolutions making transgender health care coverage a priority in contract negotiations.
Labor’s work to negotiate and enforce contracts that provide equal treatment of coworkers has changed many hearts and minds. We have created an army of straight allies in the workforce who are now vocal advocates for LGBT equality.
Most importantly, the same benefits that a strong and vibrant labor movement provide to our society as a whole have tremendous impact on our LGBTQ family as well.