A Labor of Love: Gay Rights Activists Are Finding Common Ground and Forming Surprising Alliances with America's Labor Unions

Article excerpt

It can't be only LGBT people talking about LGBT issues," says former union organizer Alan Van Capelle, the executive director of New York's gay advocacy group Empire State Pride Agenda. "If we can win over rank-and-file workers, then we're in a much better position. [And] if it's only labor talking about their own issues, they lose."

Two years ago Van Capelle decided to test that theory in a major way. He launched a new outreach program at ESPA called Pride in Our Union, headed by Desma Holcomb, a longtime labor activist and cofounder of the AFL-CIO's LGBT constituency group Pride at Work.

Pride in Our Union's mission is to bring together gay rights and workers' rights in one powerful alliance. In the process, says ESPA spokesman Joe Tarver, LGBT people are "finding out that labor is not the homophobic group of blue-collar workers that a lot of people think it was."

Indeed, a statewide contingent of New York labor unions representing more than 850,000 members strongly endorsed the marriage equality bill Gov. Eliot Spitzer introduced in the state assembly this spring, where it passed before stalling in the state senate.

Prairie Wells of Capital District Area Labor Federation is one of many LGBT union activists working with Pride in Our Union. "My mother was a roofer," says Wells, who is a lesbian. "She encountered discrimination because she was working in a nontraditional field. People said she looked like a lesbian."

A few years ago, Wells convinced a local labor council to endorse a nationwide job protection bill for transgender workers. More recently, the head of a local construction union told her he would support the same-sex marriage bill because it would mean not having to negotiate partner rights in contracts. "Even a year ago, if I had heard the head of the electrical workers union say he stood in solidarity with us, I would have laughed," she says. "It's pretty amazing."

Pride in Our Union not only lobbies union officials but works personally with LGBT union members--like New York City hospital worker Carmen Acosta, who reenergized the influential Lavender Caucus of the United Healthcare Workers East. In May, hospital workers represented the largest contingent of ESPA's annual lobbying trip to Albany. …