Queer Rights Advance, but Unions Decline and Wealth, Income Become Less Equal
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“When I was growing up, Gay marriage seemed like it would have to wait until after the revolution, but we thought we’d have a decent minimum wage,” said grocery checker and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 135 member Charles Nelson at the April 26 meeting of Canvass for a Cause (CFAC) in Hillcrest. “Instead, I’m making less per hour, in terms of gallons of gas than I could buy per hour, than I was in 1976. That’s where we’re going backwards.”
Nelson and a staff member of his union, Sandy Naranjo, spoke on the connection between Queer people and the labor movement. Most of Naranjo’s presentation dealt with coalitions on which the two have come together and challenged employers who were both anti-labor and anti-Queer. Nelson spoke more broadly on the transformation of the American labor market and the way in which activists on social issues like Queer rights have made progress — while the hard-fought gains of previous workers’ movements are being taken away and the distribution of wealth and income in the U.S. has become more and more unequal.
Nelson asked his audience how many of them were actually in a labor union. About three or four people — out of about 30 attending — raised their hands. He then asked how many had worked in a job “where you made something in a factory, a workshop, a jewelry shop, repair shop; or you did construction, you built something, harvested something, fished, mined or drilled for something?” Only two people, both former construction workers, raised their hands.
His point was that, while everyone there was a worker — “no one in this room is a capitalist or collecting interest,” he said — “very few of us have done anything in the classic labor mode. We’ve lost all those jobs to Viet Nam, China, Mexico and the global South.” Nelson said that while many American unions call themselves “International,” most of them don’t have locals in any countries besides the U.S. and Canada. “We have to talk about solidarity with people who live hundreds of miles away,” Nelson said.
According to Nelson, the reason political progressives have been able to make progress on social issues like Queer rights, while they’ve steadily lost ground on economic issues, is that it doesn’t cost the capitalist ruling class much to allow Queer people to marry. Indeed, Nelson said that many Queer leaders are attracting major corporate sponsors for Queer organizations and events “because they figure, ‘He’s Gay, he doesn’t have kids, he doesn’t pay alimony, he’s going to buy your products and take your cruises.’ Allstate is a sponsor of Equality California, and they don’t do that because they think we’re poor.”
Naranjo, who gave her presentation before Nelson did, inadvertently confirmed his point when she told the story of the 1970’s boycott of Coors Brewing Company. The Teamsters’ Union was trying to organize Coors and, searching for support wherever they could find it, they approached San Francisco Queer leaders Howard Wallace and Harvey Milk for help. Milk and Wallace organized a community-wide boycott of Coors and lobbied Gay bars to stop carrying it. “It halved their market share,” Naranjo said. “They made sure every Gay bar did not serve Coors, and their market share fell from 46 to 16 percent.”
The result was that Coors today frequently pays money to sponsor Pride festivals and other events in the Queer community — but, as Naranjo ruefully acknowledged, they’re still as hostile to unions as they ever were.
More recently, the UNITE HERE union targeted the hotels of Right-wing developer Doug Manchester and had Queer help in that campaign. Once campaign finance reports revealed that Manchester had contributed about $200,000 to the effort to put Proposition 8 on the ballot and end California’s legal recognition of same-sex marriage, Queer activists and union leaders joined forces to start “Sleep with the Right People” against the Hyatt Corporation, whose flagship hotel on the San Diego waterfront was a Manchester-owned operation.
As part of a union drive to organize the poorly treated workers in Manchester’s hotels, Sleep with the Right People “launched a nationwide campaign against the Hyatt that if you’re LGBT [Queer] and go on vacation, do not go to a Hyatt,” Naranjo said. “The campaign highlighted anti-worker bigotry and Manchester’s putting money into Prop. 8.” But while the campaign was going on, Manchester purchased the San Diego Union-Tribune, renaming it U-T San Diego, and installed new editors committed to what Naranjo called his “super-conservative, anti-labor, pro-business” policy.
Naranjo mentioned the labor movement’s and Queer movement’s biggest joint lobbying priority: the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would add sexual orientation and gender identities to the groups protected against discrimination in employment by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “Studies show that [Queer] people are being discriminated against,” she said. “There is a need for federal legislation. Labor has been a great ally with the LGBT movement. Labor is very involved with the political process and regularly endorses political candidates. Though there is dissension on this within the labor movement, but when we interview candidates we ask them about marriage equality. We have to incorporate that because it’s a human-rights issue.”
Nonetheless, Naranjo said, anti-discrimination legislation doesn’t always protect workers’ rights. “The best protection you have is a union contract; without it you can be fired,” she said. “Without a union contract, you won’t have job protection and your partner won’t have benefits. That’s limited to a contract, and a huge percentage of the [U.S.] workforce is not union.”
Indeed, the most discouraging fact of life for the labor movement is how much it’s dwindled as a percentage of the total workforce. Since its high point in the 1950’s, when about one-third of all American workers were represented by unions, total union representation has fallen to about 12 percent. In the private sector, less than 8 percent of all working Americans are union members. The biggest thing that has kept the U.S. labor movement alive is its relative success in organizing government workers — 32 percent of whom in the U.S. are in unions — but that’s under concerted attack from anti-labor politicians like openly Gay former San Diego City Councilmember and Mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio.
“I’m sick and tired of Gay people like Carl DeMaio saying unions are bad and union leaders are corrupt,” Naranjo said. “When we said that DeMaio ‘doesn’t highlight’ his partner” — in his endorsement interview with U-T San Diego DeMaio acknowledged he’s Gay but listed himself as “single” — “his partner, Johnathan Hale, called me a ‘homophobic pig.’ The media said ‘labor, LGBT and environmentalists,’ and painted LGBTG and labor as enemies. We’re not, and we’re going to show that, past, present and future.”
Nelson focused part of his presentation on the need for labor to organize and start gaining, not losing, a greater share of American workers. “It’s hard to organize a union,” he said. “Organizing means people, not ideas. The best thing you can do is gather your friends and co-workers. It doesn’t have to be the Fast-Food Workers’ committee, just you and your co-workers talking about what you’re getting — and not getting.” In addition to the legal challenges of organizing, including the power modern-day labor law gives to companies that want to resist unionization tooth and nail, Nelson said that the changing nature of the modern economy poses challenges to rebuilding the union movement.
“In the ‘new economy,’ we’ve become more disposable,” Nelson explained. “We’re not as necessary to produce anything, but they still need us to consume. People don’t feel like they’re an ongoing part of a job anymore, and a lot of unions haven’t thought in new-economy terms. The AFL-CIO understands it’s a problem. The U.S. is also not a country that’s made it easy to organize, and unions have lost the ‘fight’ they had 100 years ago” — when organizers and workers were literally willing to fight and put their lives on the line against the private armies many corporations maintained to ward off unionization.
Naranjo added a follow-up that showed a surprising degree of public discontent with the Democratic party for a U.S. union official. “Employers fire people for being organizers,” she said, noting that while that’s technically illegal your only recourse is to sue — “and that kills the organizing drive.” When President Obama was elected in 2008, she explained, labor’s biggest priority in Washington, D.C. was passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. This would mean that a union would automatically be certified as soon as a majority of the workers in a given workplace signed up — eliminating the costly representation elections which give companies another chance to intimidate workers out of union representation.
“Obama committed to push the Employee Free Choice Act, but then he gave up on it for the Affordable Care Act,” Naranjo said. “Now they just want to focus on immigration reform, and with the Sandy Hook shootings and the Boston Marathon bombings, the climate has changed and they just laugh at us.”