HRC Blog

On Celebrating Labor Day

Post submitted by Jerame Davis, Executive Director of Pride at Work

For most, Labor Day isn't much more than a way to mark the end of summer. It’s a three-day weekend to get in that last trip to the beach, have that last big cookout in the backyard, or otherwise spend some quality recreational time before the cold weather sets in. But for those who know the history of this day, Labor Day is a time of reflection, remembrance, and celebration of those workers who have given their blood, sweat, and tears to make our country the most prosperous and productive nation in the world.
 
Woven throughout the history of America's working men and women is the history of LGBT labor. The common struggle of the LGBT community and the Labor Movement goes back to at least the 1930s, when the National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards (NUMCS) elected a vice president, Stephen Blair, who was openly gay. The union was derided as, "red, black, and queer" for their strong liberal views and embrace of minority rights.
 
In 1948, Harry Hay, a longshoreman from the Bay Area in California, founded the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights organizations. Hay used the knowledge and skills he learned as a union organizer to put the Mattachine Society on the map and drive its success. Incidentally, Hay also founded the Radical Faeries movement, which still exists today.
 
By the mid-1970s, when the late, great Harvey Milk and the Teamsters banded together for the Coors beer boycotts and Harvey's successful bid for San Francisco Supervisor, Labor and the LGBT community had 40 years of history together. Harvey and the Teamsters took our shared struggle to the next level creating a political movement that showed how we can multiply our power if we just band together. 
 
Labor and the LGBT community repeated this success when they worked together to defeat the Briggs Initiative, which sought to ban gay people from teaching in California public schools. And in 1979, the AFL-CIO made its first call for a federal law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
 
In more recent times, organized labor has called for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and, to date, over 60 labor unions have endorsed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. And just to drive that point home, remember that in the 29 states, the only legally enforceable protections for LGBT workers is a union contract.
 
With all of that shared history, one might think that the relationship between the LGBT community and Labor would be unbreakable, but it is not. By and large, many in the LGBT community don't even realize that Labor is one of their most enduring and hard-working allies, let alone that we are in a fight for our very existence.
 
From union-busting corporations to state legislative efforts, such as Right-to Work (for less) laws and more, America's unions have never faced attacks from so many angles at once. And far too often, we in the LGBT community turn a blind eye to these struggles. In Wisconsin, during the attempts to break up the state employees' union, the LGBT presence was minimal and few - if any – national LGBT organization spoke out. In the current fight to break up teachers unions, the silence is deafening.
 
Time and again, state-by-date, as anti-union lawmakers and corporations have colluded to erode labor rights, the LGBT community has been largely silent as one of our longest standing allies have their rights chipped away.
 
The cause of labor is the cause of every working LGBT person. Our shared struggle is one of the most critical movements in America today. The right to work, get paid a living wage, and share in the fruits of your labor is being eroded every day. Collective bargaining is the only tool in our tool belt that allows us to push back against this tide of income inequality and demand our fair share of the economic pie. 
 
Workers in unions make, on average, 30% more than non-union workers and are 59% more likely to have employer-provided health care. The gender pay gap for women is significantly lower for union women and LGBT workers also enjoy better pay and benefits in union workplaces in addition to the added discrimination protections inherent in every union contract. In a time when the average pay of a CEO has gone from 48 times the average worker in 1980 to 331 times the average worker today, these differences matter greatly.

 
In order to change that dynamic, it's critical that organized labor and LGBT advocacy groups are engaged in meaningful conversations. I am particularly heartened by the work HRC has done in this last year in coordination with the labor movement and especially the steps HRC and Pride at Work have taken to deepen our relationship and work more substantively on our common goals. 
 
From proactive intervention in a labor dispute to the appointments of senior staff with deep roots in the labor movement like Ana Ma and Hayden Mora- HRC has stood with us on several key issues and has never shut the door when we did not agree. They, like I, know we share common values and goals and realize we must focus on those points of agreement rather than the issues that divide us. I'm hopeful this bodes well for an even deeper relationship in the years to come.
 
On this Labor Day, take a moment to reflect on the history of our shared struggle with Labor. We must stand in solidarity with those who've stood with us and let the divisions of the past fall to history.
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