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How LGBTQ Union Activists Transformed the Labor Movement

In 28 U.S. states, queer and trans workers can still be fired due to their sexual orientation and gender identity, and a strong union contract is often the only legally binding workplace protection available to LGBTQIA workers to fight discrimination

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As Pride Month is recognized around the world this year, the rainbow-hued celebration will be colored by hope, fear for the future, and reverence for the queer liberation movement’s radical past.

This year has already seen the murders of at least nine Black trans women in a slow-moving genocide that continues to ravage the community. The Trump administration is still forcing its agenda to deny basic human rights to queer people, especially those who are trans and non-binary. Around the world, queer people face brutal repression and inequality. Through it all, the community has stood strong, and even when faced with constant attacks by a homophobic, transphobic right-wing government, LGBTQIA people in the U.S. do have a formidable ally: labor unions.

American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) President Richard Trumka noted in a 2018 op-ed, “For many LGBTQ Americans, a union card is their only form of employment protection,” and he’s right. There is currently no federal law that protects queer and trans workers from being discriminated against at work, and the Trump administration reversed an Obama-era policy that classified bias against trans workers as a form of sex discrimination, which falls under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. With even that gone, queer and trans workers are left with no federal-level workplace protections, and are subject to individual states’ laws, which can also impact access to housing and health care.

This is far from an ideal scenario, which something that is made clear by recent legal battles in states like North Carolina and Georgia — as well as by Vice President Mike Pence’s record of anti-LGBTQ policies and his anti-union stance.

In 28 U.S. states, queer and trans workers can still be fired due to their sexual orientation and gender identity, and a strong union contract is often the only legally binding workplace protection available to LGBTQIA workers to fight employment discrimination. This is especially important because of the high unemployment rates for transgender and non-binary people — 16% overall — which can be compounded by other factors like racial discrimination, age discrimination, or national origin discrimination.

“As more and more people come out, especially as trans and nonbinary, our rights in the workplace and the discrimination we face grows all the more prevalent,” Noor Al-Sibai, a queer journalist and member of the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW) Freelance Journalists Union, tells Teen Vogue.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), more than one in four trans workers have lost a job due to bias, with over three-fourths reporting that they’ve experienced discrimination at work. Discrimination can take many forms, from privacy violations, refusal to hire, harassment, and physical and sexual violence to misgendering workers or denying them access to appropriate bathrooms. According to the NCTE’s 2015 U.S. Trans Survey, 30% of trans workers report experiencing harassment at work, and trans workers experience unemployment at a rate three times higher than those in the general population do; for trans workers of color, the unemployment rate is four times higher.

As a veteran labor organizer and the current director of Contract Campaigns for the Writers Guild of America, East (the union to which I belong and am a councilmember), Arsenia Reilly-Collins has seen firsthand the ways a union contract can strengthen protections for queer workers.

Unions have bargained recent contracts that include “protections around pronouns, anti-harassment language, non-discrimination, health and safety, [and] expansive health benefits to include trans benefits,” Reilly-Collins says, and they emphasize the importance of prioritizing the needs of queer workers, ensuring proper representation of queer workers and workers of color on bargaining teams, and elevating queer voices to leadership positions.

“Workers’ rights and LGBTQ rights — we can’t have solidarity unless we address all issues,” Reilly-Collins tells Teen Vogue.

Queer labor activists have been fighting against discriminatory policies and demanding better protections since the early 20th century, when organizers like the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU)’s Pauline Newman, Helen Marot (who was executive secretary of the New York Women's Trade Union League), and IWW member and radical abortion provider Dr. Marie Equi went toe-to-toe with the bosses to fight for their fellow workers.

When Rose Schneiderman — who famously coined the slogan “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too” — was hired as the National Women’s Trade Union League’s (WTUL) first full-time, working-class Jewish organizer, her salary was paid by a donation from a wealthy, anonymous Jewish lesbian.

The Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (MCSU), notable for its acceptance of both Black and gay members during a time when many unions were far less welcoming to either group, elected Stephen Blair, who was openly gay, to the position of vice president in the 1930s. Blair’s partner, Frank McCormick, helped organize San Francisco’s 1934 dockworkers’ strike alongside Harry Hay, a Communist and gay rights activist who, with fellow gay activist Morris Kight, founded the Mattachine Society.

The MCSU — which flew a banner proclaiming “Race-baiting, Red-baiting, and Queer-Baiting is Anti-Union” in its union hall — won the first workplace protections for gay people in U.S. history in one of their contracts. “You couldn't be fired for anything except for not doing your job — you had to violate something in the contract. So being gay was not a reason for being fired," queer labor historian Allan Berube explained.

The ‘70s were pivotal in solidifying the relationship between the LGBTQ community and the labor movement. In 1970, the American Federation of Teachers became the first federal labor union to make a public statement calling for an end to discrimination against LGBTQ workers. In San Francisco, in 1977, the Teamsters union joined with queer activists to boycott Coors beer, which at the time was both anti-LGBTQ and anti-union as well as racist in its hiring practices. Local organizers like Howard Wallace, an openly gay truck driver, worked with Teamsters leadership and local distribution centers to ensure the boycott’s success. City supervisor Harvey Milk, who was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the U.S. and was assassinated in 1978, supported the boycott. Following the campaign, Milk used his influence to encourage the Teamsters to hire openly gay truck drivers as well as to defeat the Briggs Amendment, a California state ballot measure that would have banned gay and lesbian teachers from employment.

“The gay bartenders marched out with the bottles of beer and dumped them in the sewers,” remembers Nancy Wohlforth, the now-retired secretary-treasurer of the Office and Professional Employees and co-founder of Pride At Work, the AFL-CIO’s constituency group for LGBTQ people. “And to this day, you can’t find Coors in a gay bar in San Francisco.”

Homophobia and transphobia have long been an issue within the labor movement, however.

“In 1979, the AFL-CIO openly expressed its support for gay rights by calling for federal legislation banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. LGBTQ caucuses were founded in many unions as thousands of gay members organized to protect their rights,” Caleb Files, a member of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild Local 32035 and former Mid-South digital director of the Fight for $15 campaign, tells Teen Vogue. “From the early ’90s until 2005, it could be said that it felt that LGBT rights weren’t important to the AFL-CIO or its affiliated unions, failing to endorse marriage equality until 2005.”

In 1994, LGBTQ labor activists who were tired of the leadership’s reticence to go all in on gay rights formed the Pride at Work nonprofit constituency group, which was inspired in part by a 1990 organizing handbook called Pride at Work: Organizing for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Unions. The group initially faced an uphill battle for recognition and resources within the broader organization but was officially recognized in 1997 and now supports over 20 chapters across the U.S. Individual unions continued to work toward change, as well.

Due to bigotry and social prejudice, many important queer labor leaders throughout history have also been forced to hide or have been denied credit for their accomplishments. For example, one of the primary architects of the 1963 March on Washington, a gay Black man named Bayard Rustin, had an immeasurable impact on the civil rights movement, but was relegated to the sidelines and publicly smeared by racist politicians like Strom Thurmond due to his sexuality.

"The barometer for judging the character of people in regards to human rights is now those who consider themselves gay, homosexual, lesbian,” Rustin said. “The judgment as to whether you can trust the future, the social advancement, depending on people, will be judged on where they come out on that question."

We’re living in that future now, and despite the strides that were made by Rustin and many other queer labor leaders and rank-and-file activists over the decades, there is still no end in sight to the ongoing struggle for LGBTQIA rights. The labor movement has proved itself to be a worthy ally in that fight, but there is always more work to be done.

“While an LGBTQ person feels some degree of acceptance in society today, in the name of corporate greed, employers will be vile reminders by how much further humanity as a whole needs to work on itself,” LeNair Xavier, a worker and organizer at the Pleasure Chest, a New York City–based sex-toy shop whose workforce is predominantly queer, tells Teen Vogue. “Especially in today's political climate, which they will take a step back in that acceptance if allowed to.”

Editor's Note: This story was updated to reflect that at least nine black trans women have been killed this year.

No Class is an op-ed column by writer and radical organizer Kim Kelly that connects worker struggles and the current state of the American labor movement with its storied — and sometimes bloodied — past.