The Personnel is Political

The local connection between LGBT issues and the labor movement runs long and deep
Tom Barbera has heard it all: horror stories from the workplace and angry shouts from the picket line. But some words, more than others, remind him of why he became involved in the labor movement.
“Who is that fat faggot?”
That’s the yell Barbera received from an audience member years ago, while speaking to a meeting of labor councils. He was there to educate the crowd with CDC (Centers for Disease Control) information about sharing a workplace with HIV-positive coworkers. Barbera responded without missing a beat.
“My name is Tom Barbera,” he replied. “And get used to it, because I’m going to be back here every month from now on.”
Working Toward Equality
Tireless dedication is vital to making waves in the labor movement, where union organizers inspire high-level change by constantly mobilizing the grassroots rank-and-file. And as a 30-year labor, disability and LGBT activist, Barbera has plenty of tenacity. Among his accomplishments, the Waltham resident is a founding member of the National Stonewall Democrats; of the SEIU Lavender Caucus, an LGBT constituency group within the fastest growing labor union in the states; and of Pride at Work, a national LGBT labor constituency group. He’s a longtime steering committee member at the Gay and Lesbian Labor Activist Network (GALLAN), Pride at Work’s Boston-area chapter.
There are obvious reasons for the necessity of LGBT voices in organized labor. Historically, they’ve pushed for everything from workplace protections, anti-discrimination laws, and domestic partner benefits. But it’s the personal stories that have motivated Barbera most over the years. He remembers tales from HIV-positive workers shunned in their place of employment; of a transgender firefighter fighting to build a women’s bathroom; and of a worker who once found his desk defaced with human excrement — because he openly displayed a photo of his boyfriend. Barbera himself once needed union intervention when he was blocked from a promotion because he is gay.
But, says Barbera, advancing LGBT issues through organized labor is important for another reason. In a community where rights are often championed through organizations led by “multi-millionaire, self-appointed leaders,” union work returns power to the people, and allows change to permeate communities organically at the grassroots level.
“Moneyed individuals often see themselves as leaders in the movement, but there are many more LGBT people who are waiters, nurses, and others in the middle-class,” says Barbera, who describes himself as a “working-class Italian guy” and practicing Catholic. He says that perspective helps him to connect with new allies — from carpenters to MBTA drivers — who work in fields that represent the average American experience, not its elite echelons. “When you have similar backgrounds, you connect in a different way,” explains Barbera. Instead of espousing top-down dogma, he relates to his peers. “We’re able to talk to each other on an eye-to-eye level,” he says. “And people change.”
Remember that crowd member who called Barbera a “faggot”? Years later, says Barbera, they were working together, side-by-side, creating signs for a pro-LGBT rally.
Labor And Leaders
Tim Coco of Haverhill also understands the value of drawing connections between LGBT issues and organized labor — from both personal and political perspectives.
When Coco was a reporter at the Haverhill Gazette in the early ‘80s, he noticed a troubling trend: the paper was laying-off its loyal older workers as they neared retirement age, and replacing them with young guns at lower salaries. So Coco founded the Gazette Employees Association, which won certification from the National Labor Relations Board. He says the union didn’t go over well with the paper’s then-publisher, who began targeting some of its organizers based on perceived vulnerabilities; in the case of Coco, that meant dropping derogatory anti-gay terms — “wimp,” “queer” — in the newsroom. It wasn’t until 1989 that Massachusetts became the second state to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in employment, and Coco says his vulnerability underscored the value of a worker union: “I was struck by the time at how important it was for labor and other progressive groups to work together. Once you add up the minorities, you’re a majority.”
At that time, though, unions might balk at aligning themselves with LGBT issues — as Coco discovered when he moved on to the Daily News of Newburyport, part of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), Local 50. Coco says that though his work was highly regarded, he was inexplicably passed over for obvious promotions. The clues were cagey at first: “I was told ‘We all like you, Tim — but you wouldn’t be a good role model for the very public position of editor.’” Coco recalls another incident, at a company Christmas party, when he was approached by the publisher: a born again Christian. “He came up to me at the party and said, ‘Tim, you portray yourself in a dignified manner.’ At the time, I was confused.” He later interpreted it to be a backhanded attempt at a “compliment.” Later, a colleague privately made it clear to Coco that his sexuality was indeed the reason for his missed promotions. But Coco says his union was too “squeamish” about the issue to go to bat for him. “We’re not a social causes group,” was the message he says he received.
But things change. Fast forward to 2012, and Coco received a very different reception from labor unions: this time as an out candidate for state senate. His website prominently trumpeted, among other successes, his years-long effort to be reunited with his husband Genesio, who had been deported to Brazil under DOMA. Though Coco didn’t win the September election, he did score endorsements from a litany of labor unions: from groups of pipe fitters and roofers, to multiple SEIU local chapters.
“I think they saw me as a fighter,” says Coco, who received significant financial support from the unions. In fact, the independent expenditures his campaign received was the third highest among state legislative candidates. He says the unions focused on shared values, not sexuality. “In the big picture, we’re all ultimately trying to protect our families and improve our wages, health insurance and happiness at work and home. They see that we share these goals.”
In fact, unions provide great opportunity to unite diverse groups around common social justice goals, says Tyrek Lee, vice-president of the Massachusetts region of 1199SEIU, one of the unions that endorsed Coco. It’s an organization of considerable clout, and describes itself as the largest healthcare union in North America. And Lee is enthusiastic about using his leadership platform to advocate for LGBT issues in the union. Lee is straight, but LGBT issues are a priority for him. He compares the gay rights movement to the civil rights movement, and says he understands the struggles of marginalized groups.
He also has a personal stake in its outcome — Lee’s mother is gay, and he remembers her struggles at work. “It caused a lot of anxiety, and a really stressful work environment,” says Lee. As vice-president, Lee works strongly with the union’s Lavender Caucus to advocate for LGBT issues across the board. The union has a number of different groups for different member constituencies. But Lee says what he most enjoys, and what really represents the power of the labor movement, is watching those diverse groups come together; he recalls a recent potluck dinner between various caucuses — representing the LGBT community, Haitians and Latinos, young workers, and other groups — in which they shared food, music, and cultural presentations.
“This is what a social movement looks like,” says Lee of the diversity in unions. “It’s about empowering folks, helping them advocate for each other and for themselves, and introducing the understanding that we all want the same thing.” And Lee says he’s proud his position in the union allows him to underscore the value of straight allies. “When I think about the civil rights movement, and when I watch a documentary and see white folks walking with Dr. King, that’s so powerful,” says Lee, who is African-American. “Because that demonstrates it is not just a movement for self, it’s a movement for all.”
“The only way we have a really vibrant social justice movement is to make sure everyone is connected,” says Lee. “You can never leave anyone behind.” And part of taking the movement forward is throwing weight behind pro-LGBT politicians. Lee is proud of the work of SEIU on a national level, and points to the recent passage of equal marriage in Maryland where the union was involved “fiercely on the ground,” says Lee.
The MassEquality And Labor Connection
Of course, the political impact of unions is felt here in New England too. Simply understanding labor movements is helpful in mobilizing around LGBT rights, says Wes Ritchie, organizing director at MassEquality. Ritchie even earned his undergrad in labor studies because, he says, union approaches to organizing can be applicable to other social movements too. And forming positive relationships with labor is essential for certain advocacy work, like helping to elect pro-equality candidates. Luckily, pro-union and pro-LGBT platforms tend to overlap within candidates, says Ritchie; and MassEquality has had great relationships with unions. “They’re very important and very active partners,” says Ritchie. He points to collaborations like Mass Values, a super-PAC backed by MassEquality and major unions like the Massachusetts Teachers Association and SEIU 1199. Mass Values chalked up several victories in November, ushering in the success of pro-equality candidates like representatives Danielle Gregoire of Marlborough and Paul Heroux of Attleboro. Both defeated Republican incumbents with anti-equality backgrounds.
Unfortunately, there are still contemporary challenges to aligning LGBT issues with labor. Take the case of Equality Maine, which in 2011 hired a new position: a labor organizer. The role was given a specific mission, says executive director Betsy Smith: to build stronger, lasting relationships with the state’s major labor unions. Smith says that in the past, the most prominent labor unions were supportive of LGBT-related worker issues, like anti-discrimination laws. Marriage, though, seemed to be a sticking point. “Folks at the top were supportive,” says Smith, but a stronger consensus was needed among members to guarantee an endorsement. So Equality Maine offered to assist in the organization of LGBT caucuses within the major labor unions, with the intent to foster support among the rank-and-file. But the effort stalled. Ultimately only one major union, the Maine Education Association (MEA), endorsed Question 1. And that decision came early on, and can’t be credited to Equality Maine’s outreach, admits Smith.
Why was it so difficult to galvanize support for equal marriage among unions? Smith says it could be tough to convince union members that the issue was relevant. “I think many people still do not see marriage equality as a workers’ issue,” says Smith. “We spent significant time in the first phase of the campaign trying to educate people that it is a workers’ issue. That it is about fairness and equality: about the legal protections that come with marriage, and allowing gay couples access to those protections.”
Of course, unions are probably reluctant to endorse pro-LGBT measures when they see those who do pay a public price — as was the case with MEA. In May, Maine governor Paul LePage, a vitriolic opponent of equal marriage, vetoed a bill that would have provided additional pay to public school teachers who receive a special certification. In a statement about the veto, LePage specifically cited the MEA’s support of Question 1 as contributing to his veto. “The MEA announced its endorsement recently of the same-sex marriage proposal on the November ballot,” said LePage. “This announcement is an example of what the union is choosing to focus on rather than expanding and enhancing opportunities for teacher development.”
“They [the MEA] took heat for it,” admits Smith, who says Equality Maine wrote the organization a letter of appreciation for their support in the face of criticism. When inclusiveness can come back to haunt a union, it’s no wonder that some hesitate to support the community.
Working Together
Of course, solidarity is a founding principle of unions. Some leaders say that for the labor movement to continue supporting LGBT issues, LGBT people should increase their awareness of labor issues. After all, the two are not mutually exclusive.
“The gay community is not uniform. We are born into middle-class homes, poor homes and rich homes,” says legendary LGBT and labor activist Cleve Jones. “We are born to immigrant families and we have various political ideologies.”
Jones is probably best known for working alongside his mentor, Harvey Milk, and for his HIV/AIDS activism; among other initiatives, he conceived of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. (The 1.3 million square foot quilt is now so large that in 2012 it was digitized for online viewing.) But he’s also become a major labor activist, and focuses on aligning the LGBT community with labor organizations. He is critical of LGBT advocacy groups that accept big corporate money, making them beholden to certain interests. He cites the case of former Massachusetts state senator Jarrett Barrios. Barrios resigned as president of GLAAD in 2011, amid allegations that the organization received funds from AT&T in exchange for his support of a corporate merger. (Now Barrios is CEO of the American Red Cross of Eastern Massachusetts).
Jones also works closely with UNITE HERE, a national union representing workers in the hotel, food service and gaming industries, and he’s especially involved in the Sleep With the Right People campaign, a UNITE HERE initiative encouraging LGBT consumers to avoid hotels that operate against worker interests. In 2012, the campaign organized demonstrations at Hyatt hotels across the country, including in Boston, to protest conditions it says are unfair to housekeepers and other low-wage workers.
What does that have to do with LGBT rights?
“Some folks in our community are single-issue people, and don’t pay attention to immediate concerns beyond LGBT stuff,” says Jones. “But, to use the current vocabulary, 99 percent of gay people are part of the 99 percent.” Jones is quick to remind of the historic intersection of the labor movement and the gay rights movement; back in the ‘70s, iconic organizer Cesar Chavez was a then-rare, outspoken advocate for gay rights, and Harvey Milk was working with teamsters to get gay bars on board the Coors beer boycott. Both are early examples of how intertwined LGBT and worker rights are — and the powerful, potent change that occurs when organizations on both sides work together. And, says Jones, LGBT involvement with unions remains an important way to form alliances with many different constituency groups.
Barbera agrees. He remembers attending an international SEIU convention in 2004, and watching as thousands of delegates voted to endorse same-sex marriage. “It brought me to tears,” says Barbera. “Watching thousands of people: gay and straight, black, white, Latino, Asian, Pacific-Islander …” Ultimately, the unity was credited to something any union member would understand, says Barbera.
“It was a declaration of many years of work.” [x]