“Labor has been fighting for LBGT rights for the last 30 years,” Carli Stevenson told the audience of the “Labor of Love” panel at Netroots Nation. Carli is an openly gay woman who has done communications for multiple labor unions and is currently working with AFSCME Indiana-Kentucky Organizing Committee 962.
The basis of the panel was talking about the direct influence that labor unions played in fighting for the rights of our brothers and sisters in the LBGT community. There is no doubt that labor played a major role in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, working to end segregation, and fighting for equality. Let us never forget that the reason Dr. Martin Luther King was in Memphis, where he was assassinated, was to march with AFSCME sanitation workers.
It is no coincidence that labor has been a leader in pushing for the current civil rights battle, the battle for equality and LBGT rights. Congressman Mark Takano told the audience that “2013 may have been the gay-est year in history.” He also said that younger members of the LBGT community do not remember the struggles in the past and who was there to help the LBGT community continue to move forward.
It was people like Cesar Chavez, who as President of the United Farm Workers union was the “first major civil rights leader to support gay and lesbian issues visibly and explicitly.” Chavez also led the “Second National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights” in 1987.
Congressman Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay politicians elected to San Francisco City Council, helped the Teamsters organize a boycott of Coors in the mid ‘70s. Milk organized the local gay bar owners to stop selling Coors while the Teamsters truck drivers were on strike. In return, Milk asked the Teamsters to hire more gay and lesbian drivers. The partnership was extremely successful, taking Coors from a 40% market share to 14% and ending the strike.
The United Auto Workers pushed equality forward. “The UAW was the first union to get same sex couple benefits into labor contract,” said Roland Leggett, the Michigan State Director for Working America. After the UAW successfully got domestic partner benefits into their contracts in 1982, more and more Fortune 500 companies started to adopt similar policies. By 2006, 49% of all Fortune 500 companies offered domestic partner benefits.
“The patchwork of legal protections across the country underscores the reason why a union contract is an LGBT worker’s best friend,” wrote T Santora, Co-President of Pride At Work, in a 2009 article.
Labor was bold and progressive in their approach to get LBGT protections for all workers, and was right there to fight back when workers were being discriminated against. Labor used their influence in State Houses and on Capitol Hill to push for same-sex marriage provisions and to pass provisions against worker discrimination.
Before becoming a politician, Congressman Takano was a public school teacher for over 20 years. He talked about the importance of the partnership between the LBGT community and the teachers unions. In 1978, they fought back against the Prop 6, the “Briggs Amendment” that would have “banned gays and lesbians from working in the California public schools.”
Together the labor movement and the LGBT community celebrated as the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. This monumental decision is leading to the destruction of the anti-gay marriage provisions passed throughout the states.
Pushing To End LBGT Discrimination
From the beginning labor and the LBGT community have been working to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). However, after the Hobby Lobby decision, the “religious provisions” in ENDA took on an entirely new meaning.
The Supreme Court’s decision allows Hobby Lobby a “religious exemption” from a provision of the federal Affordable Care Act. Within days of that ruling, “closely held corporations” and religious institutions wanted to use the religious exemption to discriminate against the LBGT community. (Read the story “Hobby Lobby’s harvest: A religious exemption for LGBT discrimination?” from the LA Times)
Just as quickly as religious institutions began to file for the ability to discriminate, national gay rights advocacy groups began pulling their support for ENDA.
“While we fully support strong protections for LGBT workers in the workplace, something that for many workers is currently only afforded by a union contract, after the recent Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case, it is clear that these broad religious exemptions would gut the intent and purpose of ENDA,” said Pride at Work interim Executive Director, Jerame Davis, in a written statement. “LGBT workers deserve strong, enforceable workplace protections and we look forward to supporting a bill to that end.”
The current version of ENDA has a religious exemption clause that would allow the “closely held corporations” and religious institutions to openly discriminate against workers because they are gay.
Carli Stevenson laid out the perfect example at Netroots Nation, when she explained that her partner works for a Catholic organization. If the administration learned that Carli’s partner was in a same sex relationship, she could be immediately fired, and unable to collect unemployment. “We’re not just talking about marriage, we’re talking about basic workers’ rights. Many of these religious and ministerial exemptions are an attack on basic protections most of us take for granted.” Carli continued. “We should not be pushing for any bill that will leave out any members of our LBGT family.”
Congressman Takano said that the staff from the Equality Caucus is working on the right language to protect the workers and the religious beliefs of religious institutions.
Roland Leggett, whose husband is a Lutheran minister, talked about the how “religious exemptions have been used a way to discriminate against people throughout history.” He continued by saying, “there is a difference between a baker who does not want to make a cake for a gay wedding, and being fired for being gay.”
Some of this anti-gay messaging comes from the Catholic Church. Kate Childs Graham, who does media affairs for the American Federation of Teachers, was raised Catholic and said she is “hopeful that this new Pope will make changes to move the church towards marriage equality.”
After a long and moving discussion about how labor unions helped to push for many of the rights and protections that the LBGT community now enjoys, it was Kate Childs Graham who posed a question to the audience: “What can the LBGT community do to help labor?”
For decades, labor unions have seen a slow decline in membership and less of the private sector is covered by union contracts. Over the past few years, labor unions have seen unprecedented attacks on workers rights.
Kate talked about the recent fight in Michigan, where Republican Governor Rick Snyder forced a “Right To Work (for less)” amendment through the state Legislature. While that was happening, Kate talked to some of her friends at Equality Michigan, and asked for their help organizing people to rally against the legislation. Without skipping a beat, Equality Michigan helped to gather hundreds of the LBGT community to a rally less than a week later.
In the 1970s when “gay rights” was a relatively new term, labor was there. Now these LBGT advocacy groups are very well organized, and very powerful. Labor needs them to help push for better wages and better working conditions. We need the LGBT community to help us push for a higher minimum wage. We need the LBGT community to help us as we are organizing low-wage workers and restaurant workers. We need the LBGT community to help us push for a single payer healthcare system. Sometimes, we just need people to stand with us at rallies. That is what the LBGT community can do for labor.
I have been running the New Hampshire Labor News for almost three years now. My work has connected me with some wonderful people from around the country. Many of the communications professionals inside the labor movement are gay. They are some of the funniest, creative, and most dedicated people I have ever had the pleasure of working with. I wanted to personally thank my friend Asher Huey (AFT Digital Media) for putting this panel together. I also want to congratulate all the people who participated in this panel, and especially my friend, and fellow Granite Stater, Carli Stevenson, who plans on being married to the love of her life in 2016!