An LGBT-labor alliance

From Washington to Maryland, unions have become key players in the fight for marriage equality

Published April 17, 2012 12:15PM (EDT)

         (<a href=''>AISPIX by Image Source</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(AISPIX by Image Source via Shutterstock)

This originally appeared on AlterNet.

As a straight, black labor organizer, Ezekiel Jackson is not the conventional face of gay rights. But as a visible defender of queer justice to the non-queer population, Jackson was the ideal choice for the presidency of Marylanders for Marriage Equality, a coalition of progressive groups. Last month, MFME made Maryland the eighth state to legalize same-sex marriage, just two weeks after Washington became No. 7.

“It wasn’t any struggle to get us on board,” Jackson says of his union, 1199, a local of the Service Employees International Union representing some 400,000 healthcare workers throughout the northeast. “We took a leadership role in putting together the coalition.”

Once the self-described guardian of “union power, soul power”—an ally of the Black Panthers and student New Leftists and an opponent of the Vietnam War—1199 is still a force for civil rights. This time, it joins a front of union confederates in the march for marriage equality. In fighting for “working families, not just certain families,” as Jackson put it in one campaign spot, labor is pushing the boundaries of queer politics while recharging its own power.

A black and blue rainbow in Maryland

Passing marriage equality in Maryland took a full deck of cards. First there was the inside game. MFME amplified the support of movers and shakers, including the mayor of Baltimore, a Baltimore Ravens player, the lieutenant governor and Governor Martin O’Malley, who, after the bill narrowly failed the legislature last year, made it a legislative priority. Then there was what Kevin Nix of the Human Rights Campaign calls a “grassroots groundswell.” Unions, clergy, civil rights groups and traditional advocacy groups like the HRC and Equality Maryland worked together to mobilize their constituencies. Given the likelihood that marriage equality will be challenged by ballot referendum in November, the ground game rolls on.

Labor has been a key source of mobilization. Unions have offered “voices other than gay voices” and “expertise in terms of politics and professional expertise in organizing,” Nix says. “The goal is to get as many folks on board with this issue, so aligning with labor helps spread the word and educate constituents and voters.”

MFME has worked most closely with SEIU Local 500, the state AFL-CIO and 1199. Before Jackson was elected president of the coalition, 1199 sat down with the governor and other key players to determine the shape of the coalition. Since then, the union has worked communications, played a “heavy” financial role and communicated with its members, who live predominantly in black districts in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County represented by key black legislative caucus members.

Given the public perception that blacks don’t support marriage equality—propped up by anti-gay organizations—1199’s organizing extends from its own membership to the larger black community. “Folks who hadn’t had an opportunity to talk about it spoke to members,” Jackson says. “Because our community is so heavily faith-based,” he adds, “there has been a divide,” which has been “lopsided because the side that supported [marriage equality] didn’t really have the opportunity to be vocal.”

The alternative

The fight for gay rights makes for strange bedfellows. Not-too-union-friendly corporations like Apple and Google threw hundreds of thousands of dollars against Prop 8 in California in 2008. The militantly anti-union Hyatt Corporation, “committed to being a global company that embraces and achieves diversity,” as its website reads, has sponsored and hosted the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media Awards and, in 2010, became a platinum sponsor of the International Gay Lesbian Travel Association. The Hyatt flaunts special “Pride Welcome Packages” in cities with large gay populations like San Francisco and Minneapolis. More recently, Starbucks, Microsoft, Nike and over 100 other businesses in Washington State endorsed the marriage equality bill passed there in February.

The partnership works both ways. The HRC appointed Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein as a spokesperson for its national marriage equality campaign. GLAAD even went so far as to send a letter to the Federal Communications Commission supporting AT&T, an ally, in its attempt to merge with T-Mobile last year. (As it happens, the CWA and other unions also supported the merger.)

“Gay people need to wise up when corporations advertise in our publications or give money to get on the HRC Equality Index,” says Cleve Jones, a protégé of Harvey Milk and now the head of UNITE HERE’s Sleep With the Right People campaign, a collaboration with the LGBT community pushing hotels to respect their workers. “They’re not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. Corporations don’t have hearts.” (Disclosure: I have organized for UNITE HERE.)

The gay community’s long-standing feeling of invisibility makes it particularly vulnerable to corporate buyout, Jones says. If a liquor company came into a gay neighborhood and put up a giant billboard with a gay couple drinking its product, for example, potential moral outrage might be clouded by the joy of recognition—“Look how far we’ve come!”

This is what queer theorist Michael Warner calls the “trouble with normal”—that is, a politics in which groups seek to be integrated into the system without challenging its logic. Instead, minority status should be the source of aggressive and visionary resistance to existing regimes of power. As Cathy Cohen has it, punks, bulldaggers and welfare queens should unite with members of other marginalized groups—gay or not—in the service of “progressive transformative coalition work.”

This is the radical potential of gay-labor alliance—a challenge to one-dimensional, and co-optable, identity politics. Conveniently, the politics of gay rights revolve largely around bread-and-butter union demands—good benefits, non-discrimination, the right to self-expression, and collective empowerment. In turn, the buckets of corporate cash that flow into LGBT causes, and the existence of otherwise conservative groups like GOProud, survive as naked, heartless ironies.

In Washington, re-articulating queer

To the extent that Washington State marriage equality advocates don’t pursue a more expansive coalitional politics, queerness becomes easy for opponents to dismiss as the province of cosmopolitan Seattle. “There’s a common misconception that this is an urban Democratic issue,” says Zach Silk of Freedom to Marry in Washington. “There was a realization that we needed to form a broader progressive coalition and to make it something that anyone can join.”

To that end, Washington United for Marriage—MFME’s counterpart, which also faces the prospect of a November ballot referendum—has spent significant energy organizing conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans in swing districts in suburban Seattle as well as rural populations represented by powerful state legislators. Labor has been critical in these efforts, not only for its image—giving people “the understanding that this was a broad progressive campaign,” Silk says—but for its material role in organizing workers, voters in their communities, and legislative allies.

The campaign has benefited most from the diffuse constituency and broad support of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21—without whom, Silk claims, “we wouldn’t have been able to win.” The local is Washington’s largest private sector union, comprising 38,000 workers from the grocery, retail and healthcare industries. Members live in every legislative district in the state and represent a range of ethnic backgrounds and education levels.

At the outset, Local 21 reached out to labor champions in the state legislature who otherwise might not have viewed marriage equality as a legislative priority—a critical task given how fast the bill moved through the 2012 legislative session. The campaign at large is effectively housed in Local 21’s union hall, where union leaders have opened up the local’s “state-of-the-art” phone bank, as communications director Tom Geiger calls it, for other organizations in the coalition to reach out to their memberships. This is “a way of walking the walk,” Geiger says, “not just making a financial contribution or doing the lobbying, but being a full-fledged participant in the campaign.”

Local 21 has a multitiered system for communicating with its own members, who work at over 700 shops across the state. On top of traditional physical mailings, the local has spent the last several years developing an email list now covering nearly half its membership. It has also worked to train 1,000 shop stewards, a necessity given its small corps of 25 staff representatives. Member outreach and member-to-member organizing are the local’s core devices for building power. “When we have a group of our members and staff and their families march in the gay pride parade every year, if we had never played a role in the issue before, it might seem a bit odd,” Geiger says. “But by making the point time and again, it provides a certain higher level of union pride.”

Local 21 is joined on the WUFM steering committee by SEIU’s Washington State Council. SEIU is Washington’s largest union, representing over 100,000 workers in healthcare, public education and social services. After the international union voted in 2004 to embrace the fight for marriage equality formally, SEIU has contributed significant financial support and volunteer time to the ongoing campaign in Washington State. The campaign also benefits from the union’s close relationship with Governor Christine Gregoire and key legislative leaders.

“I think there’s a natural affinity between a lot of our members and our LGBT brothers and sisters,” says David Rolf, an international VP and the president of SEIU Healthcare 775NW. The member-leaders of 775 are mainly working-class women in their 50s, including Mormons and Catholics, Rolf says. Many working in healthcare, SEIU’s largest industry, saw firsthand the human impact of the AIDS crisis.

Long-term partnership, on the coasts and beyond

The passage of marriage equality in Washington is only the latest in a string of pro-equality gains. After Washington enacted its own Defense of Marriage Act in 1998, which limited marriage to opposite-sex couples, activists slowly chipped away at the impact and spirit of the law: first passing anti-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in housing, employment, insurance and lending in 2005; then limited domestic partnerships in 2007; and then, in 2009, a domestic partnership law covering “everything but marriage” and upheld at the ballot box later that year. “We were starting from a place of incremental victory and really great dialogue,” Silk says. By now, marriage equality is “extremely mainstream.”

Marriage equality’s entry into the broader American “mainstream” is the offspring of decades of coalitional struggle. In some cases, unions and LGBT activists have fought together against anti-gay, anti-union companies. Most famously, while the Teamsters were stuck in contract negotiations with the Coors Brewing Company in 1973, Harvey Milk led a Coors boycott that began at gay bars in San Francisco and spread nationwide. In 2008, UNITE HERE and leaders in the LGBT community launched a boycott of the San Diego Grand Hyatt, owned by Doug Manchester, a critical seed-funder of the drive to get Prop 8 on the ballot. The boycott won national attention and cost Hyatt $7 million in business.

Other blue-rainbow alliances have taken the form of local electoral blocs. In the '70s, gay liberation groups, labor groups and black power groups joined forces against white conservative mayor Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia, ultimately preventing him from getting a chance at a third term. In the '90s, Massachusetts’ Gay and Lesbian Labor Activists Network helped mobilize the gay population and union members in opposition to the fiscal conservatism of Republican governor William Weld.

By the 1980s, blue-rainbow politics became formalized as caucuses within unions. Caucuses primarily took hold in unions with concentrated urban memberships in the Northeast and West; where caucuses for women and racial minorities already existed, like teachers unions and other public sector unions; and in industries with sizable gay memberships, like food service and healthcare. The AFL-CIO followed suit, albeit slowly. First it passed a resolution stating its opposition to sexuality-based discrimination in 1983, followed by a similar resolution against anti-gay-rights ballot initiatives 10 years later.

Then, in 1997, under the supervision of President John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO’s executive board voted unanimously in favor of Pride at Work, its own LGBT caucus. The year before that, Mary Kay Henry filled Sweeney’s place on SEIU’s executive board when he left to lead the AFL-CIO. Henry, who is a lesbian, was a founding member of SEIU’s Lavender Caucus and is now president of the international union.

Of course, the restriction of queer politics to union caucuses runs the same risk of segmentation that threatens the LGBT movement at large. “We don’t have a caucus, and won’t ever have one,” Cleve Jones says of UNITE HERE. “It’s kind of ironic for me. I was all about identity politics. But identity politics is a real trap.” Instead, Jones works with union locals to train all members, gay and straight, on member-to-member organizing around issues of justice at the intersection of labor and queer.

Nonetheless, the formalization of gay labor activism has played its own role in broad-based organizing. In New York, for example, Pride at Work helped mobilize members of the AFL-CIO’s affiliate unions in the winning fight for marriage equality last year, and as 1199’s LGBTQ caucus chair Patrick Duncan told me, the Empire State Pride Agenda reached out to labor before any other allies.

Laboring for equality—and for labor

“What is at stake for queer workers and our allies is nothing less than the forward motion of the labor movement as a whole,” wrote Miriam Frank and Desma Holcomb in New Labor Forum in 2001.

In its commitment to queer politics, labor benefits not only from the direct action and media savvy of gay rights activists, but from the rolling tide of LGBT equality. For 1199, whose 9,000 members in the Maryland and DC area are only a fraction of its total membership, leadership in the fight for marriage equality is a key plank of its broader political program. “This is a time when 1199 is stepping out more and more,” Jackson says. “Our program is going to build significantly.” In 2010, 1199 undertook extensive canvass operations and member political organizing to elect Rushern Baker, an aggressive supporter of labor, as Prince George’s County Executive, and Joanne Benson and Victor Ramirez as first-term state senators.

For UFCW Local 21, coalitional politics are a means of organizing and improving the conditions of a largely low-paid service workforce. “Sometimes you have to win protections in your contract,” Geiger says, “but unless you want to fight those battles contract by contract by contract, if something rises to the level of a civil right, it should be put into law!”

As with the hundreds of guaranteed benefits that come with marriage equality, so go other contract measures. Local 21 was unable to win paid sick days in its last round of negotiations for grocery workers in 2010. But last year, the local worked with over 75 progressive allies to make them guaranteed by law in Seattle, covering 150,000 workers. A statewide bill is currently in the works.

The same logic applies to the federal Employee Non-Discrimination Act—which, despite the consistent support of at least three-quarters of voters, introduction in almost every U.S. Congress since 1994, and the endorsement of President Obama, still hasn’t been passed. ENDA would protect queer workers from harassment or firing—a protection still withheld by 15 percent of Fortune 500 companies for sexual orientation and 51 percent for gender identity. Unions across the spectrum, as well as the AFL-CIO, are strident ENDA backers.

For queer workers themselves, the passage of marriage equality is a potential source of union pride. Take Alyssha Jacobs, a 24-year-old patient transporter at Johns Hopkins Hospital, a recently elected shop delegate for 1199, a lifelong Baltimore resident and lesbian. After meeting Jackson, Jacobs was encouraged to give testimony in front of state legislators. Already iffy about giving a prepared speech, she was first told that she wasn’t on the roster. Then she faced backlash from anti-gay legislators. “They just tried to justify it in so many ways, and it was hurtful,” she says.

But now, after a victorious campaign with the heavy involvement of her union, Jacobs wants to come out even more. “I was just on the outside looking in, and now I know they’re defending me and taking me in the right direction,” she says, of 1199. Jacobs is particularly eager to spread the union message to younger people like herself. “I work, I go to school full-time, and if I can get involved in the union, why can’t you?”

Jacobs occupies a strategic position as a labor activist. Her charge, as Judith Butler put it in an InterOccupy conference call in February, is to “see the conditions of being trans or queer as ways to articulate what inequality is, to communicate what the 99 percent is.”

At the turn of the 99% Spring, gay rights are on the uptick. Fifty-three percent of the population supported marriage equality in a 2011 Gallup poll, compared to 27 percent in 1996. Roy McDonald, a Republican state senator from Troy, New York, captured the shifting mood in a press spot last June: “Well, fuck it, I don’t care what you think. I’m trying to do the right thing. I’m tired of Republican-Democrat politics.”

Whether queer politics will become co-optable platitudes or the source of broader resistance to the normal is, however, open to question. That’s why the work of young activists like Alyssha Jacobs, and the decades-long marriage of labor and queer, is worth defending.

By James Cersonsky

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