This article was published on April 6th, 2016
You’ve probably seen them marching in the middle of your local pride parade. A rather average group of people in t-shirts, holding banners with strange words on them: BC Fed, USW Local 637, CEU, etc. This, along with phrases such as “Solidarity Forever” or “Workers of the Work Unite.” Many hate these people bringing some other agenda to the pride parade. A rag tag bunch of people, they certainly don’t look as cool as the guys in speedos in the decked-out float for your local gay bar or your national bank. But these people represent an important part of the gay rights movement and its history, something that many younger gays don’t know about.
These labour unions, also known as trade unions, played a key role in the fight for LGBT rights in many nations, including the USA, Canada, and the UK, fighting for these rights long before it was hip and cool to do so and long before corporations saw the $$$ signs above the heads of queer people. Although the solidarity between the left and queer people goes way back, a seminal moment was the creation of the Mattachine Society, founded in 1950 and one of the earliest gay rights organizations in the USA, back when homosexual activity was still widely a criminal offence. Harry Hay, a labour union activist, got together with five other gay union activists that he had met at the Southern California Labor School and formed the Society to:
- “Unify homosexuals isolated from their own kind”;
- “Educate homosexuals and heterosexuals toward an ethical homosexual culture paralleling the cultures of the Negro, Mexican and Jewish peoples”;
- “Lead the more socially conscious homosexual to provide leadership to the whole mass of social variants”; and
- “Assist gays who are victimized daily as a result of oppression”.
In fact, this was not that unusual. Many of the leading gay rights activists starting in the 30s and even up until today have cut their teeth first as labour activists, being provided with instruction on how to organize through union workshops and experience.
Bayard Rustin, who was openly gay, was a principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, otherwise known as the march where Dr King gave his famous speech, “I Have a Dream.” And while Dr King came from the religious side of the civil rights movement, Rustin was a socialist and later went on to work for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO). He began focusing on gay rights specifically in the 80s and easily linked his struggles both as a worker, a gay man, and black man in the USA.
In the 1970s, the link between labour unions and gay rights grew even stronger. In 1970, the American Federation of Teachers was the first union to pass a resolution in 1970 opposing discrimination against teachers “because he or she practices homosexual behavior in private life.” This union later played a pivotal role against Proposition 6, otherwise known as the Briggs Initiative, that would’ve made it a requirement to not just fire a teacher for being gay but to fire any teacher that spoke positively about gay people. The union saw gay rights and protecting the rights of its workers as one in the same.
Of course, there has also been some reciprocity. In the early 1970s, gay activists supported delivery drivers in the Teamsters union against Coors. Almost every gay bar in San Francisco boycotted Coors. The union in return supported the rights of gay workers to be open and end discriminatory hiring practices. Another story, immortalized in the 2014 British film Pride, is the role gay activists played in supporting miners in their strike against pit closures, recognizing they had a common enemy in Prime Minister Thatcher and equally in the police, who regularly harassed patrons of gay bars and attacked striking miners with just as much ferocity. In return, the National Union of Mineworkers showed up en masse at the 1985 London Pride Parade in a show of solidarity and became key allies in the fight for gay rights in 80s and 90s Britain.
Other key points in history include the AFL–CIO passing a gay rights resolution in 1983 and the success of lesbian bus drivers in Ann Arbor, Michigan getting “sexual preference” included in the union contract’s non-discrimination clause, one of the first bargaining units to include gay rights in contract negotiations.
Labour unions played such a key role in the gay rights movement because they understood that to truly represent their members and to ensure their employment was safe and secure, the main purpose of any union, this required standing up for their gay members too. Conversely, many gay workers recognized that their main fight was for secure employment, in a time before anti-discrimination laws, and that the best vehicle at the time to secure that right was through union activism, whence why so many gay activists first cut their teeth as labour activists. They also recognized that, as a minority, it was essential to build coalitions with other marginalized people or else they’d never succeed in their goal.
The next time you see that labour union contingent marching in the parade, make sure you clap and cheer. Or, if you’re feeling ultra-political, raise your right fist in the air.