Trade unions and LGBT activism

Issue: 148

Josh Hollands

Miriam Frank, Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America (Temple University Press, 2014), £20.99

In the past year there has been increased interest, both in the academy and in the broad left, in notions of solidarity between lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and the organised working class. This has been spurred on by the release of the film Pride, which details how a group of activists formed Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners during the 1984-5 strike against Margaret Thatcher’s pit closures. The recent publication of Miriam Frank’s detailed narrative of LGBT people organising within and alongside unions in the United States is therefore timely.

The position of LGBT people in the US has shifted greatly over the past few decades, especially in terms of the ability to organise openly in workplaces and unions. From gaining visibility in the 1960s and 1970s to the fight within the US military to repeal discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” laws, Frank’s goal is to provide a broad narrative tracing the overlooked history of workplace struggle in LGBT movements. She draws together an exceptional number of examples and anecdotes from the past half century and today. The chronology Frank provides of LGBT labour activism before the main body of text highlights the depth of this research. Over two decades she interviewed over 100 people from around the US, many of whom were activists central to labour disputes. Oral histories of their struggles prove especially humanising, as activists relay their own stories, aware that the stories of many of their colleagues and comrades have previously been overlooked because of untimely deaths due to AIDS as well as a lack of scholarship.

Frank provides a broad yet thorough history of trade union activism from an LGBT perspective, from union locals and rank and file activists, to national executives and their radical challengers. She prioritises those stories that highlight the strengths that come from solidarity, without undermining the necessary criticisms of the trade union movement when it has fallen short.

Several chapters are of particular interest to activists and historians alike. The chapter on coalition building during the 1970s provides an inspirational account of the ways in which LGBT people fought to build solidarity with other oppressed groups and workers who faced exploitation. One solid example was the 20-year boycott of Coors Beer, which found great success in San Francisco in the early 1970s, where gay rights activist Harvey Milk and the Bay Area Gay Liberation group organised solidarity with Teamsters. Black and Latino activists had been boycotting Coors for several years in protest at the company’s refusal to implement affirmative action policies. LGBT activists got involved to support beer delivery drivers in the Teamsters union striking to extend their contracts. Almost every gay bar in San Francisco supported the boycott and Coors’s profits dropped dramatically in California. In exchange the union came to support openly gay workers becoming drivers. The boycott extended into a two decade battle when Coors launched a union busting campaign at its brewery a few years later. LGBT people continued their support throughout and found new reasons to boycott when it emerged that Coors forced their workers to undertake lie detector tests, asking questions about their sexuality.

Of special interest is the way in which Frank manages to illustrate the class contradictions of LGBT-owned businesses and spaces. She provides examples from the 1970s and 1980s in San Francisco where openly gay and lesbian entrepreneurs established businesses and hired other LGBT people to work. However, as Frank notes these workplaces often overlooked standard employment regulations such as minimum wage requirements and overtime as a trade off for a workplace in which employees could be open about their sexuality without fear of reprisal. In the case of one lesbian auto repair shop this meant working on commission with no base weekly pay, sacrificing earnings to train others and no holiday pay when the owners shut the shop for weeks at a time. Bitter fights for unionisation in bars, cafes and restaurants took place especially after successful union/LGBT alliances were formed to defeat Proposition 6, which sought to ban gay teachers and their allies from working in public schools in 1978.

Frank charts the centrality of unions in AIDS activism during the 1980s and 1990s, in addition to the ways in which the epidemic helped to solidify class distinctions within LGBT communities. Unions fought hard for mutual partner benefits necessary for access to health care and insurance provisions for same-sex partners. The author notes that the first instance of domestic partner benefits came about during contract negotiations at the Village Voice in 1982. However, this was not only a win for LGBT workers, unmarried straight workers gained protection for their partners too.

Out in the Union has other strengths. The book explains in great detail, but in an accessible way, how unions organise in the United States more generally, and the practices and history specific to the country. It therefore provides an informative introduction to class struggle and union organisation which will be useful to anyone seeking to understand the particular union and workplace structures in the US. Frank does not let slow-moving union leaders off the hook, noting that many of the early fights for LGBT visibility in unions coincided with the establishment of radical caucuses and rank and file challenges to careerist leaders. She draws attention to the fact that reactionary ideas can be broken down through class struggle but does not shy from illuminating the homophobia experienced by LGBT workers at the hands of their co-workers and bosses. Frank demonstrates the abuse suffered by LGBT people, especially lesbians, who came out to their unionised co-workers. One of the strengths of the book comes from the fact that Frank spent years as a union organiser, writing a handbook for LGBT workers and trade unionists.

By the author’s own admission Out in the Union is not comprehensive. There is a lack of examples from southern states where workplace organisation has been historically weakened by anti-union legislation. Nevertheless, Frank succeeds in providing rich examples of the LGBT organisation within workplaces elsewhere.

Frank concludes by underlining the importance of unions to recent struggles for marriage equality. She argues that coalitions formed in the 1970s to battle right-wing attempts to roll back gay rights were the roots of these more recent campaigns. The fight against workplace discrimination continues today. While same-sex marriage is now federally recognised, some 32 states (a majority) still discriminate in some way against LGBT people. For example, LGBT people in some states have no federal protections in housing, education and employment. This book is an important addition to our understanding of the history of sexuality, and the workplace activism necessary to future movements seeking to defeat discrimination.