Guest Blogger

Will the LGBT Community Allow a Corporate Takeover?

Filed By Guest Blogger | September 02, 2013 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: Labor Day, Pride at Work, Shane Larson, unions and LGBT community

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Shane Larson is the co-president of Pride At Work, the LGBT constituency group of the AFL-CIO, and Legislative Director of the Communications Workers of America. He and his husband, Jean-Pierre Gaster, live in Washington, DC with their four-legged kids Clark and Sonoma.


proud-union-queer.jpgIt 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.

The Union Advantage

It's easy for many of us who are fortunate enough to have spent this three-day weekend at the beach, traveling somewhere fun, or simply having a "staycation" to not recognize that the myth of "gay affluence" is just that - a myth.

As recent studies have clearly demonstrated, LGBT Americans are disproportionately susceptible to poverty. The Williams Institute reported recently that poverty rates for LGB Americans are higher than for the heterosexual population and children of same-sex couples are especially vulnerable. What's more, a joint study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that transgender individuals in the U.S. are four times more likely to live in extreme poverty than the general population.

The statistics for segments of our community are startling:

  • 7.6% of lesbian households live in poverty, while 5.7% of different-sex couples live in poverty.
  • African-American same-sex couples have poverty rates more than twice the rate of different-sex married African-Americans.
  • Almost one in four children living with a male same-sex couple and 19.2% of children living with a female same-sex couple are in poverty, compared to 12.1% of children living with married different-sex couples.
  • African-American children in gay male households have the highest poverty rate (52.3%) of any children in any household type.
  • 14.1% of lesbian couples and 7.7% of gay male couples receive food stamps, compared to 6.5% of different-sex married couples.

What does the labor movement have to do with this? To use a phrase popular within the movement, "The surest ticket out of poverty is a union contract."

Workers who belong to unions make 30% more than non-union workers and are 59% more likely to have employer-provided health care coverage. Workers under a union labor contract are also 72% more likely to have a pension for their retirement and African-American union members earn up to $10,000 - or 31% - more per year than non-union workers, on average.

The union advantage is even more dramatic for women workers. According to Labor Department reports, a woman who works full-time as a union member typically makes $840 a week, compared to $628 for their non-union counterparts. What's more, that union woman earns more than the typical non-union man gets paid - $54 more each week.

Celebrate Diversity By Supporting Labor

As a community that celebrates diversity, we cannot forget that our fight for equality must include economic justice for all members of our community. At a time when we are seeing rapid progress toward equality on many fronts, our brothers and sisters, friends and allies in the labor movement are in a major fight to safeguard the laws and protections that define our workplace rights and took decades to enact.

Employers are ever more aggressive at fighting attempts by workers to join together and fight for their rights on the job; the labor movement is being forced to spend more and more time and resources just trying to protect the status quo.

The same political enemies that have fought against our equality for so long are the same ones vehemently attacking the labor movement and our rights as workers to legally organize and bargain collectively for our wages and working conditions.

Those corporations coming out of the woodwork to fund our organizations as their latest marketing tool are also financing efforts to destroy workers rights across the country. When do we stand up to union-busting companies that market to us at Pride and gala dinners and say "It's not enough to throw us nice parties."?

Instead of lining up like gluttonous hogs at the trough, desperate for approval and holding our hands out like a Dickens street urchin, when will our people summon our true pride and stand tall with our friends? Labor needs us; it's time to pay our dues.

A guiding principle of the labor movement is embodied in the phrase, "An injury to one is an injury to all." The essence of this ideal is found in the core of the LGBT community too. We have to stand in solidarity or we'll lose.


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