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  • Nancy Wohlforth

  • Hans Johnson

Viewpoints: Unions are key on struggle for LGBT equality

Published: Saturday, Jun. 15, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 13A

Call it the parting of the blue curtain. In just the past two decades, labor unions have gone from inhospitable places for lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people to welcoming spaces. They've gone from institutional bystanders in most major fights over gay rights to outspoken advocates.

The vast change shows the handiwork of hundreds of openly gay rank-and-file members. Some have won election as local and national union officers. This month thousands of Californians will march in pride parades that feature a union presence.

But a pair of rulings are looming from the Supreme Court in the Proposition 8 and federal marriage cases that could test the power of labor and LGBT solidarity to build on recent breakthroughs.

Long a hallmark of Democratic campaigns, labor's muscle flexed this spring in legislative victories for marriage in Rhode Island and Minnesota. State union federations lobbied for both bills and celebrated their signing.

This gay-union alliance first emerged in California in the 1970s, deepened during the AIDS crisis, and won the first domestic partnership protections for workers in public-sector contracts and local ordinances in the Bay Area in the 1980s. It could now determine how many more states follow suit on marriage equality over the next decade.

Why does labor matter to LGBT rights? Any outcome in the Proposition 8 case that nullifies the state constitution's ban on full legal recognition for same-sex couples could nearly double the number of Americans living in a state with marriage equality, from more than 20 percent to almost 40 percent.

But the scope of that ruling is likely to be limited to our state only. A separate ruling, possibly striking down at least part of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, could put the focus on the remaining states. They would become battlegrounds for winning rights through marriage that would finally have force under federal law.

Making the patchwork of state marriage laws into a nationwide blanket could prove a herculean task. Coalition politics will be crucial, even as legal challenges remain one tool. The AFL-CIO filed a pro-equality amicus brief in both the California and DOMA cases. And Pride At Work, the LGBT labor network, was lead plaintiff in a case challenging a ban on marriage passed by Michigan voters in 2004.

The harsh, anti-labor turn by that state's legislature and governor in passing a law to weaken unions highlights the difficulty facing marriage advocates in advancing beyond current footholds. Even some states with a history of liberal lawmakers responsive to grassroots pressure could require multi-year efforts.

Marriage, of course, is not the sole priority for the LGBT movement or gay labor activists. The Communications Workers of America has approved a wide-ranging vindication of the rights of transgender people, a minority within a minority that, in the words of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, faces injustice at every turn.

This resolution, like a similar one approved by the OPEIU, supports local, state, and federal laws specifically protecting trans people from adverse treatment by employers, landlords, business owners, and health care providers. The particular plight of trans people in homeless shelters, jails and detention centers has shone a spotlight on the urgency of training and resources to provide more humane and effective services.

Another riveting fight for LGBT labor activists has been the quest for comprehensive immigration reform. A generation of young activists of all sexualities, led by Californians, has mimicked the metaphors of the gay-rights movement.

By coming out of the closet as undocumented and describing their actual and aspirational contributions to our society after having been brought here illegally as kids, the activists have embedded the cause of Dreamers at the core of the debate about a path to citizenship for more than 11 million people.

A recent maneuver in the Senate could end up excluding thousands of same-sex couples where one spouse cannot gain U.S. citizenship from the scope of the law.

Still, a bill that rewards the Dreamers' struggle will rank as an achievement of LGBT-labor solidarity.

Gay people within labor have come a very long way since the days of Harry Hay, the California radical who applied his union organizing experience to form the Mattachine Society in the 1950s and fight police abuse in Los Angeles.

Activists such as Bill Olwell, a late leader in the retail and food workers union who informed then-President Jimmy Carter's secretary that the spouse he intended to bring to the White House dinner was male, helped pave the way to today. Union presidents in the building trades have presided over same-sex weddings. Mary Kay Henry, a longtime Californian and president of the Service Employees International Union, and Randi Weingarten, who heads the American Federation of Teachers, are both open lesbians directing vibrant organizations with great political sway.

The stereotype of unions as a bastion of intolerance or of unionists as Archie Bunkers allergic to diversity is one we have buried. Driving this change has been labor's full embrace of its LGBT brothers and sisters.

The challenge before us now is marshaling the clout of our grass-roots support bases to overcome resistance to our mutual goals at the state level. Doing so will give solidarity a whole new ring.

Nancy Wohlforth is secretary-treasurer emerita of the Office and Professional Employees International Union and vice president of the AFL-CIO, the first openly LGBT person to serve at both of these levels in the labor movement. Hans Johnson, based in Los Angeles, is president of Progressive Victory and a columnist on politics.

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