Labor Movements and Labor Unions

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The Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969 opened the doors to agitation by LGBT people for their rights in the workplace. This activism was always part of the larger LGBT rights movement but took on a more organized life of its own as U.S. sexual minority trade unionists and their allies took up the cause starting in the 1970s. Daily discrimination and institutionalized prejudice in the one place all LGBT people went, the workplace, spurred the need for a large-scale movement for workers' rights.

Early Alliances

Homophobia resulted in discrimination for many LGB workers at their places of employment, which in turn led to organizing. Most of the sexual minority rights and workers' rights alliances were built after Stonewall, but the earliest account of gay men out and organizing at work can be found in Allan Bérubé's research on the Marine Cooks and Stewards union from the 1930s to the early 1950s. In the 1950s U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy labeled gay civil service workers a threat to national security and thousands were fired because of their sexual orientation. The first large-scale attempts in the 1970s to protect LGB people at work were organizing campaigns to include sexual orientation in nondiscrimination language in union contracts. National campaigns included the American Federation of Teachers, which at its 1973 convention passed a resolution protesting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. That same year, the National Education Association came out against employment discrimination founded on sexual orientation. Union locals held rank-and-file campaigns to get protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation in their union contracts. In 1974 sexual minority employees at the Seattle Public Library, unionized by the American Federation of State, City and Municipal Employees, fought successfully to gain protective language in their contract, one of the first victories in the country. The independent Transportation Employees Union in Michigan negotiated similar provisions in Ann Arbor the same year. These small workers' rights battles to get sexual orientation recognized as a protective category began in the 1970s and were soon in the national spotlight.

In the Spotlight

Burgeoning LGB and labor alliances had their first high-profile campaign in 1974 with the Coors boycott. Coors, a beer manufacturer, was known to have fired gay employees and forced prospective employees to take lie detector tests about their sexual orientations. Started in California by two Teamsters, the boycott successfully crippled Coors sales in LGB bars and grocery stores in California. The news about the anti-LGB policies soon reached the East Coast and spurred similar boycotts in New York City. The boycott was eventually led by Harvey Milk and Howard Wallace and, with the support of LGB unionists in the San Francisco Bay area, they forced the company to cease anti-LGB employment policies. More than just a beer boycott, the Coors campaign created an awareness of employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Teachers were disproportionately affected by anti-LGB discrimination at work. Accusations of homosexuality were often accompanied by wrongful allegations of child sexual abuse. If there was even a rumor that a teacher or school counselor was gay, administrators and school boards often fired them immediately. In 1975 Bay Area Gay Liberation (BAGL) was founded in San Francisco to combat increasing homophobia. BAGL, along with the Gay Teachers Caucus, picketed the Board of Education, calling for fairness at work. In 1978 California's Briggs Initiative, Proposition 6, was an attempt to bar LGB teachers from public schools. A coalition of labor unions, including the state American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association affiliates and the California American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), rallied their members to vote "no on 6" and ultimately defeated the prejudicial initiative. Activists fought similar anti-LGB ballot initiatives around the country in the 1970s in Miami, Wichita, Seattle, and Eugene, but none had the strong backing of labor unions like the San Francisco campaign. Anti-LGB gay political movements that targeted homosexuals in employment, housing, and public accommodations won in Eugene but were narrowly defeated in the other cities.

Labor Unions and the Age of AIDS

In the 1980s HIV and AIDS devastated the LGB community and presented LGB workers with even more challenges. Sexual minority workers were particularly vulnerable to homophobic and AIDS phobic discrimination on the job, which ranged from wrongful termination to the denial of benefits for family members. AIDS made LGB employees more aware of the discrimination they faced when it came to family health insurance benefits and bereavement leave. Gay employees' partners were often ineligible for health insurance and gay employees were denied bereavement leave when partners or other family members died. Employees at the Village Voice newspaper in New York City were among the few workers in the early 1980s to have successfully negotiated spouse-equivalent benefits in their employee benefits package (which they did in 1982).

AIDS also changed the ways that employers treated the education of their employees, LGB or otherwise. New policies on workplace safety, health insurance benefits, and disability discrimination had to be established in order to educate employees and provide for their basic rights. In the mid-1980s, the San Francisco Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 250, a group of mostly hospital workers, formed a coalition of health care professionals to educate each other about HIV and AIDS. This educational network provided one of the only ways to get and disseminate accurate information about AIDS and served as a model for other union training programs throughout the rest of the country. Rank-and-file unionists were responsible for this innovative information, long before national branches of unions dealt with the problem of AIDS. Lane Kirkland, president of the national AFL-CIO, finally made an official statement in 1990 that union members with HIV/AIDS have a right to work without discrimination.

Sexual Minorities and Union Caucuses

As shown with the response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, sexual minority rights activism within unions came from the bottom up in the form of caucuses, small groups of employees with similar interests. As Miriam Frank's work shows, local, statewide, and national LGB caucuses were instrumental in spreading the message about the effectiveness of gay workers in their workplaces and beyond. In 1979 in San Francisco, the LGB caucus of Hotel and Restaurants Employees (HERE) Local 2 published a newspaper, Dishrag, which they used as an organizing tool by publishing stories about workplace problems concerning wages and benefits that LGB employees were having all around the city. They also publicized organizing drives and pickets, bringing the LGB community out to rallies for workers' rights at restaurants and hotels.

Another group, the SEIU Lavender Caucus, introduced LGB-friendly resolutions at its international convention in 1984. This set the pace for individual locals to take action on gay issues. For instance, Oregon's Local 503 network of LGB workers organized to push the local to negotiate for the addition of sexual orientation protection to its contract in 1987. This local also organized the group Lesbian and Gay Unionists to fight the antigay ballot measure 9 in Oregon in 1992, which would have made employment discrimination against LGB people legal.

Boston's Gay and Lesbian Labor Activists' Network (GALLAN), founded in 1986 by state and health care workers, was a union caucus with two aims. Its mission was to bring union and class politics into the LGB movement and to fight homophobia and bring LGB issues into the workplace and the labor movement. GALLAN and the Gay Lesbian Concerns Committee (GLCC) worked in coalition with other public employee unions to lobby for domestic partnership bills in Massachusetts throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Many other small union caucuses formed around the country to achieve workers' rights for sexual minorities. This organizing effort became recognized by national unions in the 1990s.

Setting the National Agenda

Until the early 1990s, sexual minority labor networks did not have an organized national voice. The group Pride at Work had its first conference in New York City in 1992, at which smaller groups like GALLAN and SEIU's Lavender Caucus did national networking. Pride At Work published its first pamphlet in 1991, describing collective bargaining strategies for negotiating LGB issues such as domestic partnership benefits and nondiscrimination language. To achieve maximum visibility for LGB issues in the union, members of Pride At Work voted in 1996 to affiliate with the AFL-CIO. With the support of AFL-CIO vice president Linda Chavez-Thompson, Pride At Work was recognized as an official constituency group in 1997 and began to set a national agenda for sexual minority workers' rights. The group focused on organizing sexual minority workers in their unions and bargaining for nondiscrimination clauses and domestic partnership benefits. This group also lobbied for the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that, if passed, would have provided federal protections for sexual minority workers. At the end of the twentieth century, Pride At Work became even more inclusive, addressing transgender workers' rights, such as accommodations for transitioning at work. Pride At Work also created coalitions with other AFL-CIO groups, such as the Asian Pacific Labor Alliance (APALA), to lobby for the rights of all workers.


Bérubé, Allan. Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two. New York: Free Press, 1990.

Hollibaugh, Amber, and Nikhil Pal Singh. "Sexuality, Labor, and the New Trade Unionism: A Conversation." In My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

Hunt, Gerald, ed. Laboring for Rights: Unions and Sexual Diversity across Nations. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.

Johnson, David K. "'Homosexual Citizens': Washington's Gay Community Confronts the Civil Service." Washington History 6, no. 2 (Fall–Winter 1994–1995): 44–63.

Krupat, Kitty, and Patrick McCreery, eds. Out At Work: Building a Gay-Labor Alliance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Christa M. Orth

see alsoantidiscrimination law and policy; boycotts; economics; employment and occupations.

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Labor Movements and Labor Unions

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