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social sciences

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Organized Labor  
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Gay Liberation Era

After the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, gay membership in unions quickly became visible once again. Queers had always faced discrimination at work, and gay and lesbian rights on the job immediately became an important part of the new gay liberation movement. Though many union members might be socially conservative, the concept of equal rights for all workers was such a vital part of the labor movement that some unions were among the first advocates on behalf of gay rights.

In 1970, the American Federation of Teachers became one of the first unions to make a pubic statement denouncing discrimination against gay men and lesbians. In 1974, the members of the New York chapter of the union founded the Gay Teachers Alliance, one of the first gay union caucuses. The same year, Ann Arbor, Michigan's Transportation Employee's Union ratified one of the first contracts prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual preference.

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One of the country's first unions of graduate teaching assistants, the Graduate Employees Organization of the University of Michigan, went on strike in 1974 to force the university to agree not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

However, not all unions embraced the gay liberation movement. In New York, Los Angeles, and other cities, unions representing firefighters and policemen were among the most intransigent opponents of gay rights ordinances designed to insure equal opportunity for gay men and lesbians. In a famous incident in New York in 1972, leaders of the firefighters' union physically attacked Morty Manford and other members of the Gay Activists Alliance demonstrating in favor of a gay rights bill.

Indeed, opposition from conservative municipal unions, along with the Catholic Church and other religious groups, stymied the adoption of a gay rights bill by the country's largest city until 1986.

In contrast, in 1974 in San Francisco, glbtq community leaders, including Harvey Milk (1930-1978), forged an effective alliance between the gay community and organized labor. Milk, who successfully sought support from labor unions in his campaigns for public office, rallied the gay community to support the union boycott of Coors Brewing Company, whose policies were both anti-union and anti-gay. The boycott of Coors beer gained momentum when gay bars in San Francisco refused to sell the product.

The working relationship between the San Francisco gay movement and important unions bore additional fruit in 1978, when California legislator John Briggs introduced a referendum to prohibit gay men and lesbians from teaching in schools. The gay-union alliance helped defeat the Briggs Amendment.

The 1980s and Beyond

In 1983, representatives from a number of unions came together to form the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Labor Alliance (LGLA) to work on both increasing union awareness of the issues of gay workers and informing gay men and lesbians about union and class issues.

Other queer activists worked around the country to promote gay issues within their unions. In Chicago during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Tom Stabricki and Barry Friedman, lovers and officers of their local of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) came out publicly and took a leadership role in gaining union support for gay rights.

In 1986, queer unionists in New York formed the Lesbian and Gay Labor Network (LGLN), which not only focused on gay and lesbian workers, but on other issues important to gays and labor alike, such as the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and farmworker boycotts of grapes and lettuce. Queer workers in Boston formed the Gay and Lesbian Labor Activists' Network (GALLAN) in 1986.

At the same time, however, labor rank-and-file did not always follow their leaders, and many gay workers suffered as much discrimination and harassment from their fellow workers as they did from their employers and often received little support from their unions.

Indeed, some employers introduced anti-discrimination protections from the top down rather than as the result of union pressure, sometimes even against the wishes of unions.

But by the mid-1980s many unions had begun to accept their gay constituencies. Some of the largest and most powerful unions, including the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) had included gays and lesbians in their definition of diversity, and queers began to be included in labor events.

In 1987, for example, LGLN was invited by the New York local of the United Auto Workers to organize a gay contingent in that year's Labor Day March. In 1991, the large international conference, Labor Notes, in Detroit invited a gay caucus to make a statement at a plenary session.

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