If Teamsters and turtles can ally themselves, why not machinists and Mattachines, brotherhoods of electrical workers and friends of Dorothy? Indeed, such coalitions have been in the works for some time and, what’s more, have been integral to the revival of the labor movement, according to the essays by academics, trade unionists, and queer activists collected in Out at Work. Combining political analyses, journalistic reports, anecdotal narratives, rhetorical pronouncements, and several interviews and roundtable discussions, the book is itself a lively demonstration of the range of activity that has been challenging workplace discrimination against lesbians and gay men, infusing labor agitation with queer protest tactics, and bringing class consciousness into the LGBT movement. The anthology also gauges with a clear eye the considerable obstacles that remain.
The book was inspired by a documentary film by Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold, Out at Work: Lesbians and Gay Men on the Job, which tells the stories of five brave souls who fought back against antigay discrimination at their workplace. In 1997, coeditors Kitty Krupat and Patrick McCreery organized a screening, followed by a symposium at NYU, where both are Ph.D. candidates (and activists in the recently triumphant campaign to unionize graduate student teaching assistants). That symposium grew into a special issue of Social Text, which Krupat and McCreery expanded further to create this stirring and hopeful volume.
At its most basic, Out at Work chronicles and assesses organizing efforts that have won domestic partnership benefits or antidiscrimination clauses that include sexual orientation. (The Voice is cited as an early victor, and Krupat was one of the organizers at District 65 who helped the Voice win a gay-inclusive “equal rights” provision in 1979 and full recognition of “spousal equivalents” in 1982.) While in 39 states it is legal for employers to fire workers simply for being gay, protections have been won in contracts dating back to 1974, when bus drivers in Ann Arbor, Michigan, first negotiated them. Since then, they have been extended to janitors, nursing home employees, clerical workers, librarians, grocery store clerks, you-name-it, all over the country; last June, the UAW won same-sex partner benefits in contracts covering nearly half a million workers at Ford, GM, and Daimler-Chrysler. As AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney notes in a rousing essay, the workplace is a primary site for LGBT achievement. “In the absence of legal and legislative protections,” he writes, “collective bargaining may be the most effective way to guarantee gay and lesbian workers the same job opportunities, protections, and benefits other workers take for granted.”
The only such legislation in the works these days is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. McCreery offers an excellent critique of ENDA, showing how with each draft (none of which has ever included gender nonconformity) it has been whittled down further and further. By specifically writing out protections for workers engaged in “nonprivate sexual conduct” while away from work—as in the infamous case of a porn actor who was fired from his teaching job—the bill, writes McCreery, “seeks not to subvert heteronormative culture but rather to assimilate gay workers into it.”
Krupat’s vital lead essay—which should be FedExed at once to the Eric Altermans and Todd Gitlins and Michael Tomaskys—smashes the paradigm that posits a class-driven golden age of activism that was steamrolled by identity politics in the ’80s and is only now—phew!—popping back to life. As organizing campaigns turned to the service sector, the rank and file swelled with women, people of color, and immigrants. Krupat demonstrates that the new demands that galvanized them and thus revitalized the labor movement—gender-based pay equity, comparable worth, affirmative action, domestic partner benefits—have everything to do with identity.
But the unions still need to go further, argue Amber Hollibaugh and Nikhil Pal Singh in calling for a new social unionism in a passionate dialogue that takes up the impact of prisons, AIDS, and other pressures on the working poor. Indeed, the replacement of social unionism with business unionism, Krupat shows, had much more to do with the decline of labor than identity politics did. Top-down structures have also impeded LGBT organizing within unions, as Tamara Jones shows in her revealing account of the Lesbian and Gay Issues Committee at District Council 37.
But perhaps the most damaging effects of bureaucracy on the gay-labor alliance come from the gay side. Noting the privileged status of those in office in major gay organizations and their failure to represent the vast LGBT working class, Urvashi Vaid laments their silence in the debate on Medicaid reform, especially because half the gay or bisexual men with HIV rely on it for health care. Cathy Cohen asks blunter questions: “In our communities, are we prepared to find out about the working conditions of employees in gay bars, gay cafés, and gay bookstores?”
Not only Sweeney but half a dozen other major union officers participated in this book. The sad surprise is that the mainstream gay organizations have yet to make common cause with labor.
Reading and signing at Bluestockings, Thursday, 7 p.m., 172 Allen Street, 212-777-6028.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 30, 2001