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social sciences

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Organized Labor  
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Rooted in a mutual belief in basic human rights, the labor movement and the community found points of natural alliance even before the beginning of an organized gay movement.

As the gay liberation movement developed during the 1970s and 1980s, gay and lesbian activists worked both inside and outside unions to challenge organized labor to broaden its struggle against workplace discrimination to include sexual identity. As a result of this bridge-building by courageous glbtq workers, labor unions became some of the first mainstream organizations to call for equal rights for queers. Gay unionists have also worked, somewhat less successfully, to mobilize broad-based support for issues of labor and class justice within the various glbtq communities.

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Working people have banded together for mutual support for centuries. As early as the Middle Ages, trade societies and craft guilds set standards for labor quality and provided training, regulation, and assistance for workers.

However, it was the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century that ushered in the modern labor movement. New mechanized production methods transformed the entire concept of labor, creating a class of workers who were treated by many factory owners as hardly more human than the machines they operated.

By the early 1800s, workers in factories, mills, and mines began to organize to demand improved working conditions, using strikes, walkouts, and other tactics. They formed a number of labor organizations, including some that represented workers in a wide range of trades, such as the Knights of Labor, founded in 1869; the American Federation of Labor, founded in 1886; and the Industrial Workers of the World, founded in 1905.

Some of the earliest labor organizing work was done by women, some who worked in mills and textile factories and others who grew up with wealth and privilege but devoted their lives to social justice.

Helen Marot (1865-1940), who helped found the New York Women's Trade Union League in 1903, was only one of many lesbians who were early union activists in the United States. Marot was one of the first to organize office workers in the Bookkeepers, Stenographers and Accountants Union. Head of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGU), she was part of the commission that investigated the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that killed 146 workers in New York City.

While Marot came from an upper-class Philadelphia family, other early lesbian union leaders rose from the rank and file. Pauline Newman (b. 1890), for example, was an eastern European Jewish immigrant who worked in a number of sweatshops before becoming the first woman labor organizer in the ILGU. At the age of fifteen, she joined the Women's Trade Union League, where her dynamic speaking ability made her an effective organizer.

Early unionists frequently embraced socialist and communist ideals of sharing wealth and control of production. Harry Hay (1912-2002), for example, was a communist who helped organize the 1934 general strike of dockworkers in San Francisco. In 1950, Hay founded the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights organizations in the U.S., and in 1979 he helped launch the gay movement Radical Faeries.

One of the earliest examples of gay influence in the labor movement has been documented by gay historian Allan Bérubé. Before his death in 2007, Bérubé had spent over a decade doing research for a forthcoming book titled Queer and Gay Identities in the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, 1930s to 1950s. The Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (MCS) represented waiters, cooks, and laundry workers on passenger ships and freighters in the Pacific Ocean. The union was racially mixed, left wing, and supportive of its many gay members.

However, the anti-communist fervor of the McCarthy era led to purges of blacks, communists, and homosexuals, not only within the MCS but throughout U.S. organized labor. Unions that had once been hotbeds of radical activity became defensively right wing. Gay men and lesbians continued to work actively in unions, but few felt free to be open about their sexual identities.

One exception was Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), a Pennsylvania-born African-American Quaker, who became a conscientious objector and social activist in the civil rights movement. Rustin worked hard to build alliances between labor, black activists, and religious groups.

In 1964, he became the first executive director of the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, the AFL-CIO's black constituency group. Though Rustin was open about his gay identity, many of his co-workers in the labor and civil rights movements were afraid to be associated with homosexuality, and Rustin found himself pushed out of the public eye. Though he became a gay rights activist in the last decades of his life, his biography on the AFL-CIO website still does not mention that he was gay.

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Bayard Rustin worked to build alliances between labor, black activists, and religious groups. He was one of few openly gay activists involved with labor movements during the 1960s.
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