I've been struggling about how to talk about what is happening at the capitol building in Madison as an LGBT conversation. I've wanted to add to what we know - the numbers of LGBT people organizing in the capitol, the ways in which Governor Walker's attack on collective bargaining is an attack on basic economic justice, on our right to organize with others as we see fit, which particularly affects those among us who have the least access to the economic wealth of this country.
It's also a conversation about how we organize, about how democratic action depends on, in the words of my brother, a labor organizer, the obligation of the government, of business, and of other institutions to honor the contracts they have signed. All of this impacts LGBT people because as LGBT people, we are impacted by any erosion of basic rights.
But I've wanted to go deeper than that. Because the connection between LGBT communities and labor organizing is more essential than how our members are impacted by economic justice today. Our own origin story as an organized community is dependent on the power of labor organizing.
Here's what I mean:
Allan Bérubé & the Queer Labor Connection
It was 1997 and I was sitting at a hotel bar with Allan Bérubé. For those of you who didn't know him, Allan was a major force in how we think about and understand LGBT histories, particularly LGBT working class histories. Most people know his work through his book and then the film made by his friend, Arthur Dong, which followed, Coming Out Under Fire, examining the experience of homosexuality during World War II through oral histories and analysis.
As a gay historian, Allan's scope was broad. His work focused on telling the stories of LGBT working class people in this country and, in particular, telling the stories of how those working class queer folks organized together as parts of broad-based justice movements. Before he died in 2007, Allan was working on a project on The Marine Cooks and Stewards Union in California between the 1930s and 1940s.
I remember him talking about the research, about what it meant to find this moment in our history where, in this time before organized gay rights, a mostly gay and multiracial group of workers on luxury liners shifted a conservative union into one that defended gay rights, challenged racism and demanded economic justice for all workers. This 20,000 black and gay-led union continued to win gains until McCarthyism tore them apart.
This was and is part of our history, something that predates how we think about our movements. It's part of who we are.
As I'm remembering it, I was sitting with Allan in a hotel in Chicago, oh beloved Midwest, when we had this conversation. The keynoter at the conference, Allan's words were organized around a central principle: there would be no such thing as a gay rights or queer movement if there were no such thing as a labor movement. All of us who are impacted by queer organizing are in debt to labor organizing.
Here's how I remember him explaining this.
The Impact of the 40-Hour Work Week on Queer Rights
Prior to 1919, there was no legal limit to the number of hours an employer could make you work in a single week. Most workers were at the whim of their bosses; working long hours with few breaks in order to guarantee their jobs. Generations of labor organizing focused on creating a legal limit to the amount of time that any employer could demand.
The outcome of this organizing, a history of which included violence directed towards those who were fighting for basic employment justice, was the eight-hour day and the forty-hour work week. The poetry behind the eight hour day was simple: eight hours to work, eight hours to sleep, and eight hours for each of us to do whatever we pleased.
Recognizing for a moment that many of you reading this essay work far more than eight hours a day, and recognizing all of the ways in which this basic employment right has been eroded, for a period of time, few of us considered it fair to be working more than 40 hours a week in order to meet our basic needs. And this was, in the literal sense of the word, revolutionary.
The legal enforcement of the 40-hour work week also meant the cultural institutionalization of recreational time. Not counting the poorest among us or the wealthiest, for the thousands of people whose basic needs were met and who had some extra cash in their pocket, the guaranteed and regular 40 hour work week meant guaranteed and regular time off. For the majority of people in urban centers in the US, the workweek followed the 9-5 Monday through Friday pattern. Which meant that after 5:00 on Friday came the weekend.
As Allan reflected in that hotel in Chicago in 1997, the legal protection of "time off" meant that when they left work at the end of the day, workers were free to create their own lives and their own communities, secure in the knowledge that on Monday morning, they could go back to a job that was waiting for them.
This meant time. And space. It meant the ability to let go and relax. It meant that when you finished work on Friday, you could take off your workclothes and put on your play clothes and become someone else entirely. The number of gay bars exploded. And there we were, becoming queer and fabulous on Friday night, and then staying in our communities to be ourselves until Monday morning when we put the work drag back on to earn our wage. And we did this every weekend, again and again.
This wasn't an easy or idyllic time. While we had an increasing number of bars and other places to hang out, those bars were being raided and closed down. We were killed, we were fired, we were sent to prison. This was not a safe and easy time to be any form of queer, but our numbers were growing.
With this legally protected weekend, there were more and more of us who were sneaking out of our family homes, our straight-passing lives, our marriages and our jobs, in order to forget ourselves in gay community from Friday to Sunday night. And while we were falling in love and sharing strategies for passing at work, we were also talking. We were getting angry at the raids and the constant attack. And one day, after we had been organizing and strategizing for years together in those bars and on those weekends and weeknights, when we had the free time to come together and know we wanted even more than those patrolled social spaces, some of us fought back at the Stonewall Inn.
Not all of us took a stand that night. Those who fought back were black and Puerto Rican trans and genderqueer people. But their demand for basic respect affected all of us. They said no and others heard it and then continued to organize and strategize and take action and a movement was born. And here we are today.
Living in a moment where the space that has been won for our LGBT lives was inconceivable to those labor organizers fighting for a workweek that would give us time to play. Thank you, labor movement.
The Broader Economic Justice Issues
Our LGBT lives continue to be directly entwined with broader economic justice issues. We are living in a time when the divide between those who are wealthy and those who are poor is as large as it was when labor was fighting for that 40-hour work week. The idea back in 1919 was that one family member in a household would work that fulltime job and the income they made would support their partner and children, if they had them. Fewer of us have that luxury.
Most families in this country have all adults working full time jobs and still, debt and lack of health insurance is mounting. We live in a time of economic fear. And that economic fear is part of what the Right has used to build a case against our rights as LGBT people, along with a case against immigration, public support for the poor and justification for racial profiling directed towards ending terrorism. It's called scapegoating and it works.
In 1919, the labor movement's successful fight for a 40-hour workweek bought us the time and the space to start coming together as queer people; to come together and take a deep breath and just plain notice ourselves. And in the noticing, we started to ask questions and in asking those questions, to dream of how things could be different. That's what economic justice creates for us. It creates lives where there is the space to talk to each other, to feel like we can turn our gazes away from making sure there is enough food and a place to sleep and instead begin to act on our dreams.
As queer people, no matter what our class, we owe something to the labor movement for bringing us here. There are many in the US right now who see unions as more of a problem than a solution. There is history here and reasons for a range of criticisms but just for a minute, put that to the side. Collective bargaining is not just about unions, it's about the rights for all of us as workers, as employees, to have our contracts respected by the institutions that sign them. Attacks on collective bargaining are a strategy, state by state, to remove one of the central tenets of democracy: our ability to organize together and make change.
As I'm watching the events in Madison unfold, I keep thinking of Allan. This is the moment where I want to pick up a telephone and ask him to tell me stories. Tell me about all of the times we've been here before. Tell me about strategy and class solidarity and how it is essentially queer.
As I write this, there are rumors that a general strike will be called in response to the actions of the Republican Party. We haven't seen a general strike in the US since 1946. Whether that happens or not, the Wisconsin Republican Party's sidestepping of the legislative process in order to end collective bargaining today has reverberations for all of us.
How, as LGBT people, are we going to support the rights of workers to organize together? While our actions today won't completely pay back the debt we owe the labor movement, it might cover some of the costs.
For some important queer perspective on what's happening in Madison, particularly the racial lens on who is showing up to protest and what that means, go to Caitlin Breedlove's piece here on Bilerico. Amazing work, Caitlin.