Monday, April 27, 2009

Queer Democrats Hear from “Shared Agenda” Campaign

Labor Activist, Youth Leader Speak on Issues, Organization-Building


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Carlos Marquez, Allan Acevedo

The April 23 meeting of the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest was billed as a presentation by the club’s youth group, the Stonewall Young Democrats, and its president, Allan Acevedo. But the proceedings were dominated by another young Latino activist and club member, Carlos Marquez, local chair of Pride at Work, a nationwide organization aimed at building closer ties between the Queer community and organized labor. Wearing three different hats — as local Pride at Work chair, organizer for the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU) “Change That Works” campaign and spokesperson for a campaign called “” — Marquez talked about the linkage between labor and Queer issues and called on club members to write their Senators and Congressmembers in support of two key pieces of legislation affecting both.

One, Marquez said, is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to ban discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The other is the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would change federal labor law so that as soon as a majority of workers in a workplace signed cards asking to join a union, the union would automatically be authorized to represent them and their employer would be legally obligated to bargain with it. Right now, that’s usually just the first step; employers have the right to demand a secret-ballot election and must recognize the union only if a majority of employees vote for it — which gives employers an opportunity to hold mandatory meetings of workers and threaten them with job loss or other consequences if they vote for the union. That sort of intimidation is actually illegal, but the penalties are so small that many employers would rather pay the fines for violating the law than have to recognize a union and pay their workers more.

The April 23 meeting was the second in a row during which the club had heard a presentation about EFCA. At the previous month’s meeting on March 26, Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council, had asked for — and received — a unanimous vote of the club’s members present to endorse EFCA. “We’re really trying to ensure that all of our allies support this bill,” Gonzalez said. “It’s been a priority for labor for the last 30 years. It’s been almost impossible for workers to form a union [without it], and where it’s been done it’s because employers have been politically pressured to accept majority sign-up.” Gonzalez explained that forming a union doesn’t automatically solve all the workers’ problems — “you still have to get the company to bargain” — but EFCA would help that, too, by strengthening the legal penalties against corporations who refuse to bargain with unions that have won the right to represent their workers.

Asked about the principal argument being made against EFCA — that union representatives intimidate or browbeat workers into signing union cards and only a secret-ballot election can protect the workers’ right to make the decision for or against a union privately — Gonzalez answered, “I would just give empirical data. Since records have been taken, there have been 42 complaints of harassment and intimidation of workers by unions in the entire history of U.S. labor law — and 29,000 complaints of harassment and intimidation by employers in 2007 alone. This bill allows the workers to form a union either by member sign-up or a secret ballot. It just takes that decision away from the employers and gives it to the employees.”

With a Democratic President and substantial Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, EFCA was originally thought to be a slam-dunk — but it hasn’t worked out that way. Employers and business organizations have mounted a sweeping campaign against it that portrays EFCA as the virtual destruction of Western civilization as we know it, and they’ve made inroads not only among moderate Republicans but moderate Democrats as well. Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), who endorsed EFCA in 2007, abruptly turned against it this year after he was threatened with a primary challenge in his own party — a move the Los Angeles Times news analysis said would be enough to kill the bill. Worse from the point of view of EFCA’s supporters, California’s senior senator, moderate Democrat Dianne Feinstein, has refused to commit to the bill — and so, quite logically, both Gonzalez and Marquez said their primary purpose in bringing the issue before the San Diego Democratic Club was to generate cards, letters, phone calls and other grass-roots pressure on Feinstein to get on board for EFCA.

In his April 23 presentation, Marquez sometimes confused his audience as to which hat he was wearing when. He announced that the three top legislative priorities of SEIU’s “Change That Works” campaign were President Obama’s economic stimulus bill, EFCA and health-care reform. At the same time he presented the leaflets, which included postcards members could sign and send to the campaign’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. for forwarding to legislators as needed. “We’re happy the entire LGBT [Queer] community is supporting an all-inclusive ENDA,” Marquez said — a far cry from 2007, when the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) went along with a “compromise” version proposed by Representative Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) to protect based on sexual orientation but not gender identity — “but even if it passes without EFCA, there will still be something missing because it doesn’t promise domestic partner benefits, higher wages or union representation.”

Many club members were disappointed that SEIU didn’t put ENDA in its list of three top demands for the “Change That Works” campaign. “Change That Works has an economic orientation,” Marquez replied. “Health care reform is necessary so as not to increase the costs on taxpayers. EFCA is absolutely an economic interest, and the federal stimulus package was obviously economic. … SEIU is absolutely in favor of an all-inclusive ENDA, but their top priorities are economic and therefore ENDA is not a Change That Works priority.” Getting testier in response to the continued criticism, Marquez said, “SEIU is the most progressive union in the U.S.,” but they have to deal not only with more conservative unions who regard ENDA as “special-rights” legislation but other Queer organizations that don’t regard labor issues as among their priorities. He said HRC had formally endorsed EFCA but “has barely put that on their Web site.” Despite their misgivings about Change That Works and SEIU’s “economic” priorities, club members eagerly took the postcards, which support both EFCA and ENDA, and signed them.

Acevedo began his presentation on Stonewall Young Democrats by introducing several other key members — his co-president, Jennifer Livingood, former president Jonathan Goetz and board members Olivia Cecil and Matt Karolis. He focused mostly on the club’s growth since its founding in 2005, when they were able to get local elected officials like Christine Kehoe and Toni Atkins and candidates like Francine Busby to their meetings. “We had a list of 300 and have built it up since,” Acevedo said. When Brandon Tate took over from Goetz as president in 2007, Acevedo recalled, “we strengthened our relationship with the San Diego Democratic Club, including the monthly ‘Bridge Building’ column in the club newsletter.” Acevedo became president in 2008, after Tate was elected a vice-president of the California Young Democrats.

“We expanded our board to 10 members and doubled our budget from $2,000 to $4,000,” Acevedo said of his presidency. “We had six of our members working on the staffs of Stephen Whitburn for City Council, Marty Block for Assembly or No on 8. We now have 16 members on our board, a majority of whom are minorities. This weekend, five members are going to the California Democratic Party convention as full voting delegates. We have 40 members and our budget has doubled again to $8,000. We’ve established chapters at City College, Mesa College and San Diego High School. We’re working to start new chapters at South Bay and Southwestern High School, and we’re also strengthening ties to California State University-San Marcos.”

Most of Acevedo’s comments were on the nuts-and-bolts of organizing the club, rather than on specific issues. When one club member asked how the club was going to keep the interest of young people who got politically active for the first time because of their enthusiasm for Barack Obama, and also how the club was going to mobilize people to fight for reproductive choice, Acevedo referred that question to Olivia Cecil. She boasted that club members have already met with Congressmember Susan Davis to discuss how to respond if and when San Diego Reader publisher Jim Holman or some other anti-abortion zealot puts yet another parental-notification initiative on the California ballot even though it’s already lost three times.

Acevedo also explained the Stonewall Young Democrats’ quirky relationship with the San Diego Democratic Club. “When Jonathan Goetz founded Stonewall Young Democrats, it was under a partnership with the San Diego Democratic Club,” Acevedo said. “The idea was always that we would grow up and ultimately become our own separate entity. Thanks in part to our organizing treasurer, we were able to file our own paperwork to do our own quarterly reports” — a legal necessity for any organization raising and spending money on political campaigns. “We’re already doing our own finances and endorsements,” Acevedo continued. “But we still depend on, and need a lot of support from, the San Diego Democratic Club.”