Interview by Katherine Turk
Out in the Union (Temple University Press, 2014) by Miriam Frank tells the continuous story of queer American workers from the mid-1960s through 2013. This book chronicles the evolution of labor politics with queer activism and identity formation, showing how unions began affirming the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers in the 1970s and 1980s and how these struggles continue to the present day. Frank documents coming out on the job and in the union as well as issues of discrimination and harassment, and the creation of alliances between unions and LGBT communities, organizing drives at queer workplaces, campaigns for marriage equality, and other gay civil rights issues to show the enduring power of LGBT workers. Drawing from 100 interviews with LGBT and labor activists, Out in the Union provides an inclusive history of the convergence of labor and LGBT interests.
Katherine Turk: The subfield of gay and lesbian history has existed for more than three decades. Why do you think it has taken so long for scholars to write queer labor history?
Miriam Frank: The field of LGBT history includes many studies of queer working-class communities but very few investigations of the actual work lives of queer working-class people in those communities. Traditional labor history considers the everyday lives of working-class people at their jobs in terms of unionization, job mobility, and racial, ethnic and gender segmentation in the workforce. Queer workers and queer issues have not been a topic.
Before the 1970s, this made sense, because LGBT workers rarely revealed their queer identities on the job or in their unions. But customs have changed. In Out in the Union, I show how workplace cultures, community standards, and union traditions have influenced the ease or difficulty workers experience as they come out at work and in their unions. Contemporary explorations by union activists about working class lives and queer identities have led to LGBT-oriented reforms in organizing drives and collective bargaining, in union service programs, and in politically effective labor/community coalitions.
The US labor movement has a great history of strong political coalitions that have pressed for reform on economic and social problems. I wanted readers to consider how LGBT trade unionists developed alliances to apply their organizations’ principles and resources to queer union members’ economic status, basic civil rights, and workplace cultures. The successful LGBT coalitions that first emerged in the 1970s continue today, influencing collective bargaining priorities, community organizing, regional politics, and trade union ethics.
KT: Your book is organized thematically and chronologically; much of the narrative unfolds through case studies that illuminate the issues that have faced gay unionists as they pursued economic justice and the right to be open at work. Why do you start the book with a timeline?
MF: Out in the Union narrates untold stories of queer labor based on more than 100 oral histories that I recorded between 1987 and 2010. The collection’s scope follows diverse industries, unions, communities, and political events and ranges through more than 50 years of US labor and LGBT history.
A wise reviewer of the manuscript suggested that this complex narrative of communities, organizations, and events could benefit from chronological markers. I made a timeline based on occasions from the larger narrative that would contextualize political issues and decisions that shaped unions and queer working-class communities during that important half-century. I wanted to highlight locations, conflicts, alliances, and negotiations to demonstrate the astonishingly uneven, yet consistently dynamic diversity of these two movements.
KT: You make a strong case that queer and labor histories are intertwined. The years you chronicle saw the expansion of queer civil rights and the contraction of labor rights; as queer identities have become more accepted, working class identities have declined. Do you see any causal relationship between these dynamics or are they merely conterminous?
MF: My book begins with the mid-1960s, before gay liberation emerged as a mass movement. Unions then represented approximately 30 percent of the U.S. workforce. Public and service-sector unions were organizing successfully and their gains offset declines in union participation in the private manufacturing sector. Those losses stemmed from manufacturers’ decisions to shift operations to regions where lower wage rates prevailed and “right-to-work” laws disadvantaged labor’s goals.
During this same period, public opinion on queer civil rights began to favor reform, especially in liberal urban centers – and in states where union drives could not be stopped by right-to-work sanctions. These congruencies are neither causal nor coincidental. Rather they indicate politically liberal values: the acceptance of sexual variance in civil life and the encouragement of fair work rules in economic policy.
One early marker of the growing acceptance of queer civil rights was the 40-year-long state-by-state elimination of anti-sodomy laws in 36 states, by ballot or by judicial decree, a trend that began in 1961. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas struck down the anti-sodomy laws of the fourteen remaining states; of those fourteen states twelve maintained right-to-work statutes.
Declines in union membership have steepened, but without real losses in working-class identity. The harm, instead, is economic. Former union members still hold jobs, sometimes two or three, often as part-timers, often at or close to minimum wage. Their positions are precarious: they hesitate to challenge managers about unsanitary and unsafe working conditions, undependable schedules, and scarce raises. An ever-stronger corporate class with ever more consolidated political power threatens the security of working-class people and their unions as well as the hard-won gains of queer communities.
On April 15 of this year, queer and straight skilled laborers in highly-paid unionized jobs rallied in shopping malls and downtown plazas throughout the country. They were joined by queer and straight fast-food workers, big-box store workers, adjunct professors, home health care aids, and others who labor in underpaid and underrepresented jobs. I went to the demonstration in midtown Manhattan. People were demanding a raise in the minimum wage and an end to union-busting harassment during organizing drives. It seemed to me that while decline in union membership remains a serious issue, there is no dearth of people with working-class pride who would gladly reverse the situation.
KT: The book opens with the story of Bill, a covert trans man who worked as a locomotive engine repairman and rose to a leadership role in his union in the early twentieth century. How does the history of transgender workers relate to that of gay and lesbian workers, thereby rendering the more general term “queer” useful for labor history? How have transgender workers’ priorities been incorporated or downplayed within broader labor struggles?
MF: Bill’s fragmentary story of survival and transformation fits in with what little we know about transgender lives a century ago; and his union involvement is unique during an era when transgender working-class people had few options for survival. Some lived openly as outsiders; others would quietly pass. Rarely were any of these experiences recorded.
Decades later, transgender people were active in homophile and early gay liberation movements. But as gay liberation entered the political mainstream during the mid-1970s the strategy shifted from radical confrontation to a lesbian/gay civil rights agenda. Two issues emerged, both of them popular and possibly winnable: legal sanctions to halt sexual orientation discrimination and legalization of domestic partnerships. Anti-discrimination policies were included in unions’ constitutions in the early 1970s and the first collective bargaining agreement to protect domestic partners was ratified in 1982. Lesbian and gay advocates in the labor movement based their claims on union principles as old as the labor movement itself – an injury to one is the concern of all. Absent from the civil rights dialogue was any mention of gender transition or expression.
Nevertheless, transgender workers of the 1960s and 1970s found recourse from straight workmates and union representatives. At one auto plant, a worker who was in transition from male to female suffered hazing from co-workers and supervisors. Her local president broke up the worker-to-worker harassment, then helped her file a lawsuit against the company.
Unions first adopted constitutional resolutions on transgender workers’ rights to equal protection late in the 1980s and then confirmed those rights in their contracts. But not until the late 1990s did any workplaces prioritize health benefits and gender expression as rights specific to the lives and needs of transgender members. A few unions have followed that trail, but many others have yet to highlight transgender workers’ claims in contract negotiations.
Queer progress in the US labor movement has never been easy, but lesbian and gay union members have seen basic civil rights and economic benefits move steadily forward, especially since the mid-1990s. By contrast, transgender union members continue to travel a road that remains remarkably uneven. Now is the time for all queer unionists and their allies to support transgender activists as they press for a trans-friendly bargaining agenda. Their demands can shape improved contracts that will at last address head-on their basic needs: to earn their livelihoods free of harassment, protected from discrimination and supported by good wages and fair benefits.
KT: The second of the book’s three sections emphasizes the significant and often unlikely coalitions among queer and other workers and between queer activists and unionists. But did you also encounter evidence of notable tensions or fissures (sexism or transphobia, for example) within the queer labor community?
MF: Political cultures of the labor movement are actually different from the cultures of many identity-based civil rights organizations. To say it plainly, healthy unions operate with a primary ethic of solidarity when they work with activists from the ranks and with coalition partners from allied organizations.
This is not to say that expressions and issues of sexism, homophobia or transphobia do not exist in the ranks or in leadership. But from my interviews I have consistently found evidence of LGBT union members supporting one another in organizational decisions and working out their differences in frank dialogue. At best that openness flows from the union hall to the workplace and back again. LGBT union members who have come out have usually found fair-minded allies among straight and cisgendered co-workers: on the job and in their organizations
Often what sealed that respect was the willingness of LGBT activists to join in the projects of their unions. Everyday tasks, focused planning, and casual conversations gave people paths for productive collaboration. Queer people were seen less as outsiders and more as compatible volunteers; the energies of new activists lightened everyone’s loads.
That second section of the book consists of two chapters about the politics of coalitions. Labor/queer coalitions have been important to the health of both movements because queer communities, like unions, continue to deal with real and destructive political threats. Both have found reliable allies in one another in national, regional, and local struggles.
I have seen union meetings where waves of mistrust greeted new ideas. But way more often than not, labor’s essential ethic of fairness and equality has made a vibrant difference: “United we stand, Divided we fall — An injury to one is an injury to all.”
KT: Do labor unions still serve a vital role for queer workers, and, if so, is their need greater than other workers’? Given labor’s precarious position in today’s political and economic landscape, should queer activists continue to pursue the union-building strategies you uncover in Out in the Union? Or should they instead intensify their efforts to boost protections for queer identities in more visible and professional workplace settings?
MF: Out in the Union shows how unions and queer communities learned to collaborate during a critical 40-year period. During that time, unions were being diminished and weakened by multiple waves of deindustrialization accompanied by right-wing pressures against gains achieved through collective bargaining. And yet the US labor movement has managed to survive.
Currently, unions represent 11 percent of employed people in the US, a sure decline from the high point of 35 percent in the 1960s. Still, in 2013, 11 percent of the number of people represented by unions was 14.5 million. Estimates of how many people in the US are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender vary widely, but if we say 5 percent, we still have 725,000 workers; and that’s not counting partners, spouses, parents, and children impacted by the economic security of their queer family members.
Activists should come to terms with labor’s track record on queer issues and make their own estimations of the value of working in coalition with organizations that still represent 14.5 million people. Queer communities and labor have definitely benefited from mutual support: from the coalitions that overcame anti-gay referendums in California, Oregon, and Washington over a 30-year period to the deliberate and surprising state-by-state adoption of marriage equality reforms between 2003-2013, all in states with union densities of 10-25 percent.
Professional workplaces are increasingly unionized. Adjunct and graduate student campaigns have been popping up on dozens of campuses. Nurses’ unions have been mobilizing aggressively to address current transformations of U.S. health care. And unionized opera singers and orchestra musicians at New York’s Metropolitan Opera made headlines in September 2014 by winning their contract battle just ahead of the annual opening night gala. That fight was professional and militant and community support was very, very gay.
KT: For its subject, scope, and source material, your book is pioneering. You note that the book is not intended to present encyclopedic coverage or to serve as the last word on its topic. How do you envision your book as a platform for future scholarship? What related study would you most like to see next?
MF: Out in the Union has already served as a research base: for a chapter in a doctoral dissertation in 2014 at the University of California, Santa Cruz, by Sara Smith (on efforts by teachers and their unions to defeat the Briggs Initiative of 1978 in California); and for a senior honors thesis at Columbia University by Jared Odessky on union activity during the notorious Anita Bryant “Save Our Children” campaign in South Florida in 1977. It will be influential in graduate studies and down the line could provide a base for other sophisticated projects. I am aware of two graduate seminars being offered this summer that will use Out in the Union as a core text, and I have been invited to speak to one of those groups.
There are a number of paths that scholars could take. Projects that focus on single industries or on a particular region would offer more intensive research opportunities than the structure of my project permitted. I am thinking on the order of two very challenging and wonderful works: 1) Anne Balay’s Steel Closets (University of North Carolina Press, 2014), a fiery and focused study of 40 queer unionized steelworkers, most of them employed at the U.S. Steelworks in Gary, Indiana. 2) Phil Tiemeyer’s Plane Queer (University of California Press, 2013). I have disagreements with Tiemeyer’s exclusive study of gay male flight attendants, but I do admire the book’s dedicated and unswerving focus on the actual work that these men perform.
Earlier this year I posted a NOTCHES entry, Organized labor, Gay Liberation and the Battle Against the Religious Right, 1977-1984, and became acquainted with Bob Cant and Brian Dempsey, both of them veteran British labor activists. They mused on the dearth of historical review about gay/labor organizing in Britain and the absence of queer consciousness in British everyday life. They discussed the possibility of a British trade union oral history project. This would have to be a huge devotion, but what opportunities that material could offer!
And now, a last word about archives: the Out in the Union oral histories, files, and related organizational materials of the Lesbian and Gay Labor Network have been deposited at New York University’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives in the main Bobst Library. Some scholars have already been working with what is available. By summer’s end, 2015, the entire trove will be available to the researching public.
Miriam Frank received her Ph.D in German Literature from New York University in 1977, where she currently is Adjunct Professor of Humanities. She has taught Labor History in union education programs in New York City and in Detroit, where she was a founder of Women’s Studies at Wayne County Community College. Her book, Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America (Temple University Press, 2014), chronicles the queer lives of American workers from the mid-1960s through 2013.
Katherine Turk is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Turk has written numerous articles on postwar feminist politics and the challenges of defining and creating sex equality in the workplace, in the law, and in American culture. Her forthcoming book, Equality on Trial: Sex and Class at Work in the Age of Title VII, will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in early 2016.
Photo: Katherine Turk and Miriam Frank at the “Fighting Inequality” Conference of the Labor and Working Class History Association and Working Class Studies Association, Georgetown University, May 2015. (Photo courtesy of Desma Holcomb.)
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