Out in the Union:
A Labor History of Queer America
by Miriam Frank
Temple University Press, 2014, 240 pp.
Troll the annals of news analysis too long, and opinions morph into conventional wisdom. Especially in light of the 2013 and 2014 Supreme Court sessions, two such reigning orthodoxies hold that the gays are winning and unions are losing. Gay marriage is sweeping the country, President Obama has pledged to protect federal workers from discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender, and our parade is sponsored by Diet Coke. Meanwhile, union membership is dwindling, the fastest growing pool of workers have been dubbed “partial public employees” exempt from dues, and protections for workers are so abysmal that even the neighborhood barber has to sign a non-compete agreement. These stories aren’t unfounded, but they have been churned through the media with such frequency that to challenge them would border on heresy.
Enter Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America, a surprising new book by Miriam Frank. Starting roughly in the 1970s and ending close to the present day, Frank chronicles a history of LGBT unionists transforming the labor movement by demanding union policies and then labor contracts that protected queer and trans workers from discrimination and substantially improved their material conditions. She draws on an impressive oral history archive to portray the vibrant internal dynamics of the labor movement as queer and trans members and leaders forced it to grapple with their rights and needs. Most crucially, Frank notes that in many places a union contract is the only thing protecting LGBT workers from discrimination, given the lack of federal legal protections and court silence on the issue.
This is the book’s single greatest achievement: arguing not explicitly but by preponderance of evidence that unions have been crucial to the growth and success of the modern LGBT rights movement. It flips our standard readings, while suggesting powerful ways forward for the American workforce. The hard work of organizing for fair conditions develops solidarity between workers, and the political bond reduces the divisive potency of sexuality and gender. Through their involvement in the labor movement, queer and trans workers have not only promoted their particular needs but engaged in a process of politicization that created a blueprint for the LGBT rights movement, and perhaps for social justice movements to come.
In many places, a union contract is the only thing protecting LGBT workers from discrimination, given the lack of federal legal protections and court silence on the issue.
Frank’s book couldn’t have come at a better time. As the courts and Congress are racing rightward, and our greatest hopes rest in the dubious realm of the executive order, Out in the Union reminds readers that the labor movement can be a powerful force for social and economic progress—at its best, facilitating a broader democratic surge upward from the grassroots. A notable example traces contract negotiations between Columbia University and an office worker chapter of District 65, United Auto Workers. In the 1985 contract, the union won a ban on homophobic discrimination as well as a 6 percent pay increase. This set the stage for further advances, but only when the membership made it a priority. Frank quotes a member of the negotiating committee, Sally Otos, describing how that first win led to a demand for domestic partner benefits: “You don’t get anything in the abstract. There has to be a need and a desire, so for our next contract, let’s try to do that. And nobody got up and said, ‘What a terrible idea.’” In 1988, at the height of the AIDS crisis, the clerical workers won extensions of bereavement benefits for “spousal equivalents” and, in 1994, secured benefits for same-sex partners.
Beyond these stories of triumph, Frank chronicles the often painful process of coming out as queer or trans in a union, as well as many successful campaigns to unionize workplaces of primarily queer and trans workers. The book is organized thematically and, while lacking a central argument, is rich with narrative.
In a sense, it reads like a greatest hits of the oral history collection Frank herself created. She began interviewing LGBT unionists in 1994 and has amassed an archive of over one hundred recordings. A few other books have touched on the topic of queers organizing within and on behalf of unions—Phil Tiemeyer’s recent book Plane Queer, for example, on the history of male flight attendants—but none has so completely centered on the voices of individual queer union members. At times one senses that any paragraph could be spun into its own journal article—a testament to the novelty of the subject matter and to Frank’s pioneering research. The full archive of her work is now housed at the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University, where Frank received all of her higher education and is now a Master Teacher in the school of Liberal Studies.
As the first book to tackle this subject historically, Out in the Union faces some challenges. Too many topics are squeezed into its 150 pages, without contextualizing details or synthetic analysis. At times, in an effort to produce a primer on the history of each, Frank oversimplifies the two movements, describing labor as purely economic and LGBT concerns as inherently individualistic and focused on sexual freedom. Neither is entirely accurate, as the book itself demonstrates. Consider labor’s crucial role in the civil rights movement, or the economic demands of queer liberation organizations in the 1970s. But like other pioneering works, the book raises innumerable questions for further inquiry: Did queer social ties connect union movements across disparate geographies? How did the experience of being gay influence an individual’s employment opportunities, or her desire to join a union? How successful were unions in combating anti-LGBT discrimination compared to other grievances?
Most unfortunately, the book comes up short on analysis of how class differences impacted the coordination of queer and labor interests. Perhaps this is partially due to the source base: the interview setting doesn’t lend itself to class polemics. But in a book about the labor movement, the absence of discussion as to why certain groups moved more quickly to the queer labor cause is deeply felt. Frank does not entirely ignore class analysis, but it plays like a subtle homage rather than a central theme.
Through their involvement in labor organizing, queer and trans workers have not only promoted their particular needs but created a blueprint for the LGBT rights movement.
Lacking that framework, Frank leaves readers with ambiguities verging on the realm of stereotypes. At one point, she contrasts the importance of LGBT–union coalitions in a tale of two states. In the presidential election year 1992, ballot initiatives in both Colorado and Oregon sought to eliminate the limited legal protections against homophobic discrimination on the books in each state. In Colorado, the organization defending the existing protections, Equal Protection Colorado (EPOC), looked poised to win, but it was undercut on the eve of election day by the efforts of Colorado for Family Values (including aggressive canvassing), and ultimately lost the vote. According to Frank, EPOC failed in part because it did not make strong connections to the labor movement in Colorado; “the majority of Colorado’s local unions represented blue-collar workers: the construction brotherhoods, the Machinists, the Teamsters. Gay organizing did not exist in any of these locals in 1992.” Service-sector and white-collar unions in Oregon, by contrast, had fought for pay equity for female workers and won contracts that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Long-standing ties between gay rights advocates and the labor movement allowed the coalition to handily defeat Oregon’s proposed amendment.
Frank’s framing of the two campaigns suggests that blue-collar shops were by nature more hostile to gay organizing than other workplaces. She characterizes unions such as SEIU as more progressive than their blue-collar counterparts (SEIU having been instrumental in the defeat of Measure 9 in Oregon). In Colorado, the gay-labor alliance forged during the Coors boycott had withered by 1992, so EPOC never reached out to potential labor allies; meanwhile, the labor movement in Colorado turned its attention to another ballot initiative that would slash public funding. Frank’s distinction between “blue-collar” and “progressive” unions may be inadvertent, but her casual characterizations of certain unions as more or less inherently open to LGBT issues threatens to descend into common stereotypes about working-class hostility to queer organizing, and undermines her argument elsewhere that “what unites the interests of both movements is their shared constituencies. Queer communities in America have always included a large working-class element.”
The same issues arise when Frank delves into the dynamics of organizing a mostly queer or trans workforce, using the unionization drive at GMHC to show that managers can be hostile to workers even if they’re all gay. This is the furthest she goes toward answering how class dynamics impact union and LGBT organizing. She describes, for example, how working-class lesbians organized in traditionally male jobs, but doesn’t speculate about why that’s important.
The question of class—and the political priorities related to it—animates current conflicts within the LGBT movement more than any other. Queer critiques of gay marriage hinge on disagreements over class, and the debate still rages although victory for the marriage equality movement is all but assured. The largest LGBT organizations are now turning their attention to workplace and public accommodations protections. That campaign takes on new urgency in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, as major LGBT organizations abandon the Employee Non-Discrimination Act for fear that religious objections will render it useless. The campaign will also undoubtedly bring class questions into stark relief. If scholars can build upon Miriam Frank’s work in Out in the Union as labor and LGBT organizations again join forces, perhaps history can be our guide.
Kate Redburn is a doctoral student in history at Yale. Her writing has appeared in the New Inquiry, Salon, and Jacobin, where she is a contributing editor.