Karen Ocamb

LGBT & Labor Movement Activist Howard Wallace Has Died

Filed By Karen Ocamb | November 18, 2012 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: Howard Wallace, labor leaders, LGBT activists, obituary, P@W, Pride At Work

Just as LGBT politicos have started talking post-election about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and pushing federal contractors Howard-Wallace.jpegto adopt job protection policies for LGBT workers, Pride at Work announced that one of labor's leading lights, P@W's President Emeritus Howard Wallace, 76, died on Wednesday in a San Francisco hospice after having struggled with Alzheimer's for several years. Wallace was particularly known for his organizing work around the Coors boycott, as detailed at the Queerest Library Ever which features the photo above.

"Yesterday, we lost a champion who paved the way for the work and the victories we see today," said Shane Larson (CWA), Co-President of national Pride at Work. "Times are changing today because of the work of those who came before us."

Openly gay Los Angeles-based Sal Rosselli, president, National Union of Healthcare Workers who Wallace a mentor, sent this note to gay friends in the labor movement:

Friends - so sorry to report Howard passed away this morning after a year long struggle. Howard was a former staff leader of Local 250, many of us got to work with him in that capacity. However, he has been a leader of the LGBT and Labor Movement since the 1960s. He was most instrumental in bringing the labor and gay movements together in common cause including directing the Coors Boycott and opposing the infamous Briggs Initiative. He mentored countless leaders in our movement including me and worked tirelessly in countless campaigns. We will help organize a celebration of his life after the first of the year. I look forward to helping you and others know who this great man was. Sal

Sally-Buchmann-Howard-Wallace.jpeg

(Pride at Work co-chair Sally Buchmann and Pride at Work founder Howard Wallace. Photo from Left in SF.)

From the P@W press release:

Howard Wallace served as founding Co-President of Pride at Work, the national constituency group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers and allies. Together with President Emerita Nancy Wohlforth, they launched Pride at Work, organizing until it was officially recognized as a formal constituency group affiliated with the AFL-CIO in 1997. Nancy continues to serve on the Pride at Work (P@W) National Executive Board on behalf of the Office & Professional Employees Union (OPEIU.)

"We are grateful that Howard is at peace after his long struggle," said P@W national Co-President Lori Pelletier (IAM), who also serves as Secretary-Treasurer of the CT AFL-CIO. "Howard Wallace fought the fight for justice and equality with courage and vision. The opportunities we have today are thanks to the groundwork from pioneers like Howard Wallace."

Organizing since the 1960's, Howard was known throughout the movement for his pioneering work bringing together the LGBT community and labor movement. He was a former staff leader of SEIU Local 250 and also dedicated to anti-war efforts.

Howard was particularly known for his work with Harvey Milk and Allan Baird on the Coors Boycott and opposing the Briggs Initiative. The "Briggs Initiative" ballot measure (1978) was designed to ban gays and lesbians from working in California public schools. It was successfully defeated 58.4% to 41.6%.

In the 1970?s, Coors was accused of firing gay and lesbian employees and demanding that workers take lie detector tests including questions about their sexual orientation. The boycott received national labor support in 1977 when nearly 1,500 workers walked off their jobs in protest. Along with the LGBT community, the AFL-CIO and unions across the movement organized tirelessly for the boycott. After a ten-year movement-wide struggle, the boycott effort was finally won in 1987.

"We are diminished," said P@W Co-Vice President Gabriel Haaland (SEIU, San Francisco.) "Howard was a fearless warrior for justice in the LGBT and Labor communities, and he was an inspiration and mentor to me and many others. May he rest in power."

ILWU Local 34 has graciously offered their building next to Giants Park for a Memorial meeting, expected to be scheduled after the first of the year. Details will be announced. Please visit the Pride at Work Facebook page if you would like to leave remembrances and reflections.

A short biography on the Matt & Andrej Koymasky historical website indicates that Wallace's impulse for social justice was strongly influenced by his sexual orientation:

Wallace, who started working in political groups as a high school student in Denver, says his activism was influenced by his sexuality - even before he came out. "I was aware of being gay in the second grade," he says. "It gave me a strong empathy with other underdogs that stuck with me all my life."

As a student activist, he learned that his principles had a price. Halfway through his first year at the University of Denver, he was forced to choose between his education and his political work.

"I left some United World Federalists stuff on the dining-room table," Wallace says. "My dad saw it and said, 'What is this communist shit?' " His father insisted he give up politics. "He put a couple of checks on the dining-room table - the checks for next year's tuition - and said, 'Get out [of activism] and you can have those checks.' I tore them up in his face, and that was the end of my college education."

Wallace and his father have since reconciled, but "it's been a rocky road," he says. "He's one of my earliest authoritarian figures, and he made me an antiauthoritarian."

When he left college and took a series of blue-collar jobs, Wallace's antiauthoritarianism led him to become active in unions - most importantly the Teamsters. And when he moved to San Francisco in 1967, he began working to unite the labor movement with the leftist causes that were close to his heart. The hard work of Wallace and other progressive labor activists paid off when northern California's labor councils were the first in the country to officially oppose the Vietnam War.

In 1974 he found a cause that could bring together labor and the nascent gay-liberation movement. Teamster delivery drivers had organized a boycott of Coors beer to gain leverage in a long-standing dispute over union representation. One of the Coors practices they objected to was a lie-detector test for employees - and one of the questions asked on the test was 'are you homosexual?'

Wallace helped bring Harvey Milk and other gay community leaders on board, and soon the bars lining Castro Street had stopped serving Coors.

The campaign served to out Wallace in his workplace. After a TV appearance backing the boycott, he says, "somebody at work just said 'saw you on TV last night,' and that was that. Two weeks after coming out, I was elected shop steward at Planters Peanuts."

That, the website bio reports, helped build a working relationship between the unions and the growing LGBT political movement.


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