Unionization and the LGBTQ Movement

Here at the end of Pride month it’s important to remember the history of the labor movement and the LGBTQ movement. Despite the traditional view that Unions are a majority of white conservative men, unions have been strong allies in both the fight for LGBTQ liberation and in the maintaining of our rights. Before the legalization of same-sex marriage, national pride parades, and the Stonewall riots unions have been fighting for LGBTQ rights.

The National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards elected Stephen Blair, an openly gay man, as its vice president in 1933. Blair was instrumental in the West Coast strike of 1934, which directly led to the unionization of every port in California, Oregon, and Washington. In 1948, Harry Hay founded the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights organizations in the United States.

There are many stories like this, from the 1930’s to today. There have been numerous movies and books produced about the stories of Marsha P Johnson (who was trained by labor activists), Harvey Milk (who had strong ties with labor), and various strikes where LGBTQ and Labor have worked together (such as the UK Miners’ Strike of 1984).

Despite this, LGBTQ traditions have been corporatized. It is important to understand, and make it well known, that unionization is a queer tradition. When national studies show that gay men, lesbian women, and bisexual people make less money than their straight coworkers the answer is not to fight against your coworkers, but to bargain for your wages with them. There’s a reason that unionized workers on average make 30% more than non-union workers, because when we fight together for what we need, we win.

Speaking to my own personal experience, unionization is important for my healthcare as a bisexual trans woman. I will be attending Penn State this fall as a graduate employee, and I’m lucky to be going to a university that offers its grad students insurance. Not only do people who are not straight have higher risks of certain diseases like HIV (and others!), but also less than half (49%) of trans people have received hormone therapy when more than three fourths (78%) of them want it. Unionization not only secures the healthcare that helps me become who I am, but gives me a community where I can expect support.

Two years ago I was trained by a chapter of Working America (under the AFT), and during my training I encountered people of many backgrounds. Different races, sexualities, and genders came together to fight for people’s material needs. When a community understands that an injury to one is an injury to all, that community is worth fighting for. There is a reason that “Race-baiting, Red-baiting, and Queer-baiting are Anti-Union” is an old labor motto.


This blog post was contributed by Kelli Knipe, graduate employee in Sociology