Labor and the LGBTQ+ Community

As corporations kick off their Pride month marketing strategy by selling rainbow items to improve their profit margins while largely ignoring the concerns of LGBTQ+ community, it is imperative that we understand the true meaning of pride. June was chosen as the LGBTQ+ Pride Month to commemorate the Stonewall riots, which occurred at the end of June 1969.

Today, Pride is celebrated around the world with countless events to recognize the strength and positive impact LGBTQ+ people have on society.  In recent years, support has grown for the LGBTQ+ community and important rights have been won, including the Supreme Court ruling that same-sex couples have the right to marry.. But despite this social progress, LGBTQ+ workers still face many hurdles, especially when it comes to achieving economic stability and equality.

A Bloomberg study revealed that of lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB)-identified people, “42 percent had experienced at least one form of employment discrimination because of their sexual orientation at some point in their lives.” Sadly, these numbers aren’t surprising. More than half of states have laws in place that allow employers to discriminate against and fire employees on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

But that’s not all. Statistics say economic discrepancies including food insecurity, lack of housing, poverty wages, unemployment and underemployment plague LGBTQ+ communities. These very issues are the reason why labor unions exist – to ensure ALL workers receive a good wage, a workplace free from discrimination and dignity on the job.

Workers benefit from unions, because unions set pay standards and workplace protections. Working people in unions make an average of 30% more than non-union workers. 92% of union workers have health care coverage from their employer. And union workers are more likely to have guaranteed retirement funds in comparison to non-union workers. Workers fought for these important benefits and protections over more than a century, and the LBGTQ+ community played an instrumental role in many of the victories achieved for all workers.

The partnership between LGBTQ+ communities and unions goes way back. LGBTQ+ activists and rank-and-file members were vital actors in the labor movement and have been pivotal in the fight for workers’ rights. Labor reporter Kim Kelly writes in Teen Vogue:

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.

Kelly sums up this eye-opening piece of history with an interview with Pride At Work Co-founder Nancy Wohlforth who says:

            “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.

The demands of the LGBTQ+ community often coincide with the demands of unions. It is no wonder why both groups have a long history of working together for inclusion in the workforce, worker protections and the right to unionize.

Thirty years ago, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” which describes “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, sexuality and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” At its core, intersectionality illustrates “where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.” The intersectional experience is greater than just advocating for LGBTQ+ rights or workers’ rights. It encompasses the growing concerns of both, leading us to create partnerships that address both groups most pressing issues, especially when they overlap.

No movement  is monolith. Almost every concerning issue intersects, but what we do with that framework can make or break us. The LGBTQ+ community and the labor movement have both shown us that we are stronger when we ALL stand together, side by side. And while some corporations will continue to use pride month to make a profit while paying LGBTQ+ workers poverty wages, we  shouldn’t lose sight of what Pride really means. It means equality for all – economic and social.