Academic journal article Hecate

The Low Pink Ceiling: Mardi Gras; the Biggest Labour Festival of the Year

Academic journal article Hecate

The Low Pink Ceiling: Mardi Gras; the Biggest Labour Festival of the Year

Article excerpt

The Low Pink Ceiling: Mardi Gras; The Biggest Labour Festival of the Year

Introduction

Campaigns on issues such as protection from homophobia, in the workplace, and in the trade union movement challenge sexual politics -- which is what lesbian and gay unionists have been doing since the early 1970s. Shane Ostenfeld has argued that the trade union movement has proved responsive to the needs of gay and lesbian workers, particularly through the efforts of white-collar and left-wing unions, although strong opposition is mounted by right-wing unions.(1) But a recent study of the workplace experiences of lesbians, gay men and transgender people shows that alarming rates of discrimination and prejudice remain.

The study, `The Pink Ceiling is Too Low' was a joint project of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby and the Australian Centre for Lesbian and Gay Research.(2) It found that over half of the respondents said they suffered from homophobic behaviour or harassment, including eleven per cent who had experienced verbal abuse, including threats of physical and sexual abuse. The Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby welcomed the support of ACTU President, Jennie George, who launched the report and they declared their intention of working with unions. This is an instance of the kinds of alliances that we believe are both possible and necessary if we are to achieve any reduction in workplace discrimination.

Much needs to be done to create forums and spaces for lesbian and gay workers in and around the trade union movement. In the two articles here, Robin Fortescue and Karen Askew discuss how the history of union participation in the Sydney Mardi Gras shows the kinds of difficulties lesbian and gay unionists face, as well as the strategies that can be developed with other unionists to achieve union funding and support. The success of these activities depends on the efforts of at least some persistent, active officials.(SF)

The Australian Clerical Officers Association (ACOA) did a lot of early work developing AIDS policies for workers, and this was subsequently picked up by the ACTU. The union had activist members who formed a Gay and Lesbian Caucus within the union. The Caucus raised issues of work and family, and superannuation in the context of gay and lesbian relationships. These were taken up on behalf of the Caucus by Vicki Telfer, the union's State Secretary. The ACOA decided to participate in the 1994 Sydney Mardi Gras parade by funding a float and took the proposal to the state peak body, the New South Wales Trades and Labor Council. When it was raised at the meeting it was met by catcalling and jeering. However, the Labor Council Secretary, Peter Sams, supported the union, by then renamed the Commonwealth Public Service Union (CPSU) following amalgamation. This support was very important, because it meant that a general call went out to unions to participate in the float.

Embracing social justice issues on behalf of lesbian and gay workers exposed unionists to harassment. Vicki Telfer was forced to get a silent phone number because she was getting hate calls, often in the early morning. But many CPSU members understood the issues of discrimination and prejudice and gave gay and lesbian workers a lot of support.

The decision to support gay and lesbian workers came at a testing time for union officials as it coincided with a union election. Candidates' posters were defaced by scrawls saying: don't vote for them, `they support poofters.' Union branches in other states were very critical, and alleged that the union's good name was being `dragged through the mud.'

Why support Mardi Gras? Why support this group and not others? This decision opened up the debates; the union leadership had to explain the grounds of their decision in terms of social justice, and address questions about why they were involved in what was seen as a `side' issue. The CPSU took the stand it did because the officials and activists believed their members had rights to union support, and there was still much political work to he done. …

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