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Tobias Barrington Wolff Headshot

Labor and the LGBT Community

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LABOR PROTEST

With this essay, I issue a challenge to LGBT Americans across the country regarding one of the most important priorities for our community at this moment: the urgent need to contribute our voices, our efforts and our resources to the existential struggle that the labor movement is currently waging against the Republican forces seeking to cripple the right of workers to collectively bargain and roll back workplace protections. I believe that our national organizations need to be putting feet on the streets and money on the table to support labor. I believe that we, as individuals, need to show up to support and defend workers. I do not suggest that this work should happen to the exclusion of our continued advocacy on traditional LGBT issues, but I do suggest that it should be a major commitment of the LGBT community right now, not just a symbolic statement of support. I urge this course of action for three basic reasons.

First, labor rights is an LGBT issue. As Gary Gates and others have long since demonstrated, LGBT Americans come from the same economic and demographic origins as all Americans. That means that 65-70% of LGBT Americans have no college degree. The median household income for LGBT Americans ranges from about $35,000 per year in the poorest states to about $65,000 in the richest. Huge numbers of LGBT Americans have either no health insurance or inadequate health insurance. If anything, these economic challenges are even more acute for LGBT workers, who enjoy no federal protection from workplace discrimination and no protection under the laws of many states, no access to equal health benefits in most companies, no access to equal treatment for their families under the laws of most states, and unequal treatment for their relationships under federal law. Working-class LGBT people tend to be less socially visible in our civil rights efforts, just as working-class people tend to be less socially visible in American public life as a general matter, but a large majority of LGBT people are directly at risk from the Republican assault upon workers.

Second, labor unions have been showing up for years on the issue of LGBT equality. As one illustration among many, look through the "AFSCME Pride" section of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees website, which reiterates AFSCME's commitment to LGBT equality and offers a clearinghouse of online resources and a link to a sign-up sheet for the AFSCME Pride network. Showing up to help labor in their current struggle is not an act of altruism, it is the satisfaction of a reciprocal obligation.

Third, this urgent fight over the future of labor and workers' rights is where the energy in American politics is today. The attempt by the Republican party to overreach following last November's elections and cripple the ability of workers to organize -- and, incredibly, to roll back protections like child labor laws, as in Maine, where Republicans are seeking to create a rotating, vulnerable and underpaid workforce that will further disempower low-wage household earners -- has generated a backlash unlike anything we have seen in half a century. Liberal and progressive forces have an opportunity to use this fight to reclaim the political agenda in America and to reframe the political narrative. LGBT advocates and the LGBT community need to be a part of this urgently important moment. We need to be visibly showing up and contributing our efforts, so that our allies in labor, in state legislatures, and in political parties and organizing committees around the country will know that we were there when it mattered. And, in putting skin in the game, we will be able to play a part in defining the agenda and narrative that will emerge from this reawakening of the American worker.

Pushing back against the current assault on American workers should be one of the highest priorities of the LGBT community today -- fully on a par with the effort to secure employment discrimination protections or relationship rights. And all of us as individuals should start looking actively and creatively at how we can contribute to this fight. I, for one, am setting myself that task starting right now.

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