Union Members Prepare for Pride at Work Convention

7-05-06, 10:15 am

Union members are preparing to journey to San Diego for the 2006 Pride at Work (PAW) convention. Scheduled to begin September 7th, the national convention of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trasngendered (LGBT) constituency affiliate of the AFL-CIO is titled 'No Turning Back in 2006.'

In a telephone interview, PAW Program Director Jeremy Bishop said the convention will provide opportunities for PAW members to both educate themselves on major issues confronting the labor movement and 'to come together and just relax and recharge their batteries with people who understand the struggle and understand what they go through.'

The convention organizers are planning several important plenaries and workshops. Three pre-conference 'institutes' will help members learn more about key issues such as marriage equality, the history of Pride at Work, and transgender justice. Each session will provide members with skills and strategies for raising these issues in their union locals and workplaces. A caucus for people of color and allies is also planned.

One plenary will focus entirely on the war in Iraq and will be addressed by a representative of the oil workers union in Iraq. According to Bishop, PAW played an important role in helping the AFL-CIO to develop its historic position urging a rapid end to the war in Iraq.

As an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, Bishop commented, PAW provided space in which conversations between anti-war activists and labor movement leaders took place. 'We were able to push things along. Whereas I don’t think those internal avenues would have been available if Pride at Work hadn’t been there,' Bishop added.

PAW is leading the way on a number of key issues that specifically concern LGBT workers. One important issue that is generally under-reported is transphobia in the workplace, or the fear or hatred of people transitioning from one gender to another.

Bishop says that his organization gets a lot of calls from workers about this. 'I think transgender workers still face incredible verbal and physical violence on the job,' Bishop said.

For this reason, PAW held one of the first Transgender 101 workshops in official US labor movement history. The event brought union members together to talk about how unions can help and support their transgender members in the workplace against poor treatment or discrimination, and to learn way to make transgender issues, such as health care benefits specific to transgendered people, a part of the union's demand.

This historic workshop was one of the highlights of PAW’s work in the last couple of years not only because a number of unions participated and were educated on this key issue, but also because it shows how far the AFL-CIO has come on LGBT questions, Bishop suggested.

At first, 'I didn’t even know they would allow us to have it in the building,' he added. 'But it was held in the Sam Gompers room, which is kind of like the house of labor here in DC.'

Over his tenure as program director, Bishop said that he has seen union members themselves come a long way. At one of his first events with PAW three years ago, he recalled, people would come to the table, but as soon as they saw 'the words lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered' on the literature, 'they would literally throw it away and run in the other directions like they were afraid of catching it by touching it.'

But now workers are eager to talk to PAW representatives. 'They are excited to see you there,' Bishop noted. 'Usually they want to tell you about an experience they’ve had in the workplace where either someone’s come out or someone’s transitioned genders in the workplace, and they have questions or they feel like they have been a good ally in the fight.'

Aside from helping to change attitudes in the workplace toward LGBT workers, PAW has also led the struggle for domestic partnership benefits, an issue important to both gay couples and non-married heterosexual couples. In some places, PAW members are bringing the issue of health care for transgender workers to the bargaining table. PAW members have also been educating union members on larger political questions such as marriage equality.

The ability to bring these issues to the foreground in the labor movement makes PAW a crucial organization for LGBT workers. 'Without organizations like Pride at Work,' Bishop remarked, 'the prevalence of domestic partnership benefits, unions fighting for marriage equality, unions taking a stand for transgender equality wouldn’t be happening.'

The PAW convention is a place to gear up for the November elections, Bishop said. These mid-term elections are definitely important for LGBT union members. Bishop contrasted the political atmosphere under the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress with the Clinton years, contending that 'when an incident like Matthew Shepard’s murder happened there was some kind of national dialogue. But now we have the complete opposite where the national dialogue is all about beating us up.' Bishop urged also holding Democrats accountable if they fail to support LGBT workers.

According to Bishop, PAW has between 20 and 30 affiliates across the countries with members from many unions and a mailing list that has doubled in the last couple of years. Bishop added that PAW wants 'people who are interested in the intersections of LGBT issues and worker justice and want to fight on those things.'

'We want to let them know there is a place in the movement for them and want them to get involved at Pride at Work,' he said.

Find out more about Pride at Work and its upcoming convention at: