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Come out for labor rights

April 5, 2011

Are you a union member, or a friend or family member of a union member? If so, please come out. Please identify yourself that way in conversations. Please stand up for unions and for the basic worker rights that they protect. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2010, only 11.9 percent of workers in the US were represented by unions, and that number is only as high as it is because about a third of public sector workers are union members. 

What does this have to do with sexuality? First of all, without unions there can be no economic justice in a capitalist society, and without economic justice, sexual freedom is impossible in any meaningful way. To fully realize our sexual freedom we need basic economic security. 

Second, there is a lot to be learned from the coming out campaigns of the LGBT movement. When we are visible we reveal ourselves, making ourselves vulnerable, but we also become three dimensional human beings to those who have previously seen us as one-dimensional stereotypes.

Third, there is something similar about taking a part of your life, a part of yourself, a part that you perhaps take for granted, and making it a part of your identity. I am not just a professor, I am a union member. I am not just a clerk, I am a union member. I am not just a groundskeeper, I am a union member. Union membership is something we often see as part of the background of our lives, and we need to bring it into the foreground. Again, LGBT activism gives us a model for doing this. 

In tough economic times it is easy for people to villify or demonize a small group of people who are represented in the press as greedy, lazy, and selfish. Especially if you don’t have any reason to suspect that real live union members are any different from that representation.

But that’s not who we are, and it seems to me that the only way for unions to turn the tide that is undermining them now is if we each come out of the union closet and identify ourselves to our friends and neighbors so they see us as the hard-working, community-minded, caring and dedicated people that we are.

Harvey Milk is represented in the biopic Milk as saying "They vote for us two to one if they know they know one of us." (It’s also worth recalling that Milk worked with union leaders and had strong labor backing of his campaigns, and that progressive labor unions and LGBT political unions often work in concert with each other.)

When nonunion workers are facing layoffs and pay cuts and the media tells them its all the fault of unions, it’s easy to see how they’d vote to undercut the power of workers who are depicted as leeches feeding off an increasingly anemic public. But if they knew that we were their neighbors, their kid’s friend’s parents, the people they always nod to at the supermarket, it might be different. If we talk to them about the ways that unions protect not just their members but the basic rights of all workers, they might feel differently. What if, instead of hiding our union membership out of fear of being criticized or attacked, we talk to them about the struggles of all employees and encourage them to seek the strength of unions to protect themselves rather than to tear down the organizations that helped bouy their own raises and benefits just by virtue of comparison? 

This week is a week of We Are One events spreading solidarity, raising consciousness, and making demands for economic justice. Take a moment this week to identify yourself in relation to that effort. If you are a union member, or a friend or lover or kin to one, take a moment to tell someone else about that. Tell a story that helps counter the negative impression of union members in the press. Take a risk. We can’t rebuild the labor movement from inside the closet. 

I’m a union member, and a union leader, and I’m proud of my role in protecting rights for all workers. How about you? 




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