By Sam Carliner / Waging Nonviolence
At any march for rights there’s no shortage of creative chants. This year in New York City at the annual Queer Liberation March, a new one debuted. Playing on the lyrics to RuPaul’s “Cover Girl,” queer rights activists chanted “Socialists, put that bass in your walk! Unionize, let the whole workplace drop!”
This was one of several labor-themed chants from a Left and Labor contingent which formed to amplify a labor movement that increasingly represents the LGBTQ+ community and is organizing for LGBTQ+ rights.
Left Voice, an all-volunteer socialist publication, initiated the contingent. Around two dozen unions and politically left organizations joined the initiative, endorsing it, bringing out their members and publicizing the march. Some of these groups were the Amazon Labor Union, or ALU, Astoria Boulevard Starbucks Workers United, MORE Caucus of the United Federation of Teachers, Workers Strike Back, Tempest Collective and the Crown Heights Tenant Union.
Reba Landers, a member of Left Voice who covers attacks on trans rights, spoke on why they put out the call for the contingent.
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“I think people tend to separate the idea of a worker and the idea of a queer person,” Landers said. “They think of those as two very separate identities, and I think it’s important to understand that the vast majority of queer people are workers … and the issues that we face in workplaces as workers are stemming from the same system as the issues that we face as queer people.”
Unionized workers came from Amazon, UPS, the City University of New York and elsewhere. In all the march drew thousands of attendees looking to protest during NYC Pride, in contrast to the official parade organized by the city.
Michael Aguilar, a queer Amazon worker and organizer with ALU, attended the march. He spoke about how being open about his identity has helped him organize his workplace.
“Our building has almost all queer workers, so it’s been a vibe,” Aguilar said. “I feel like we’re kind of the majority in a way, and it helps with having winnable actions when other people are part of your community.”
Unions for LGBTQ+ rights
The march was just one of several actions to occur over Pride Month demonstrating that unions are increasingly showing support for their LGBTQ+ membership. At the start of the month, Writers Guild of America, or WGA, which is currently on strike for a better contract, held Pride-themed pickets in Los Angeles and New York City.
Labor reporter Olivia Wood attended the NYC Pride picket for WGA, where signs included slogans like “Striking is gay in the best way,” and “I’m on strike for dykes who write.” Wood spoke about why it made sense for WGA to organize LGBTQ+ writers.
“For creative professions, stereotypically that’s an industry where there’s been more openly queer people for longer,” Wood said. “Some of the demands directly relate to these issues, like when Disney keeps censoring any whiff of a gay person. Especially when it’s queer writers trying to write this representation, that’s a workplace issue. Worker organizing can demand that these things actually make it to the screen.”
Wood is also a professor at CUNY and organizes with her union, PSC-CUNY, which was part of the contingent. The union contains several chapters, one of which recently passed a resolution to support trans rights. Wood covered this resolution and, in her article, included a message of solidarity with workers in states facing attacks on trans rights, on behalf of the union chapter. The message offers that the chapter could collectively issue statements, schedule Zoom calls to discuss organizing strategies with workers facing these attacks, or even travel to support actions in other states.
While more unions are organizing support for LGBTQ+ rights, the labor movement has only recently been revitalized, relegating much of the more progressive union activity to major cities and industries where queer people are more widely accepted. However, a recent action by Starbucks workers demonstrates the national potential that an organized LGBTQ+ labor movement can have.
From June 23 to June 30, thousands of Starbucks workers at more than 150 stores unionized under Starbucks Workers United, or SBWU, are going on strike. SBWU called the strike in response to workers reporting that Starbucks is not allowing them to display Pride decorations. The strike announcement highlights how Starbucks has tried to stop the unionization wave sweeping the company by threatening to revoke workers’ health care benefits if they unionize. Some of the threatened benefits include trans health care.
Maria Flores was one of the Starbucks workers who went on strike for the week of action. While her unionized store in Astoria Queens endorsed the Queer Liberation March, she and other SBWU members in the New York area mobilized to confront Starbucks corporate participation in New York City’s official Pride march.
“We took the power back from them for that one day,” Flores said. “We showed all those people that side of Starbucks.”
Rainbow capitalism in retreat
It is especially notable that LGBTQ+ workers are organizing to represent their identities at Starbucks, a company which lauds itself for LGBTQ+ inclusion. Starbucks is one of many companies cutting back on supposed support for the queer community in the face of an unprecedented attack on trans rights.
Liv Ryan, another SBWU member in Lynbrook, New York, criticized the idea that Starbucks supports the queer community.
“Starbucks loves making rainbow money, but it loves making LGBTQIA+ people poor even more,” Ryan said. “Our store has never had Pride decorations, but we have had three transphobic and two homophobic managers.”
For years, people have written criticisms of “rainbow-washing,” a practice in which businesses market themselves to LGBTQ+ people around Pride Month, but only do so with the goal of profiting off of the community. Several controversies this year have demonstrated the nature of “rainbow-washing,” and sparked more discussion within the queer community about businesses not showing support for rights when it matters most.
Bud Light and Target drew national attention when anti-LGBTQ+ mobs directed their anger at marketing campaigns by these companies. In Bud Light’s case, the beer company partnered with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney and soon received massive backlash, fueled by public far-right figures, including Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Kid Rock. Rather than stand by their decision to partner with Mulvaney, the company placed two of its executives on leave. Target has been marketing to LGBTQ+ people for much longer with their annual Pride clothing collection. This year, far-right influencer Matt Walsh incited his audience to go after Target for their Pride collection. In response, Target pulled certain merchandise and some stores hid the pro-LGBTQ+ merch.
At Amazon, Aguilar had his own experience with how companies present their relationship to the LGBTQ+ community and how they actually act.
“During our [union] election last year, there was this woman who was a really anti-union leader, going around calling our organizer a slur and threatened to shoot him,” Aguilar said. “Amazon didn’t do anything about it because she was effective at destroying the union.”
Aguilar added that Human Resources at his workplace has ignored cases of his trans co-workers being harassed.
Landers spoke about how these controversies demonstrate the need for queer people to organize themselves to defend their rights.
“When we see [companies] backing off, it becomes clear that the only people who will liberate us is us,” Landers said. “It has to be from the working class, it has to be self-organization.”
After the march
Many of the organized workers who attended the Queer Liberation March are thinking about how they can continue organizing their workplaces for LGBTQ+ rights moving forward, and continue showing the labor movement the importance of organizing queer workers.
Wood will be leading a youth study circle at CUNY on trans history and activism, along with other CUNY professors and trans rights activists. She continues to build relationships between PSC-CUNY and other education workers and unions. It is her hope that by building this solidarity, education workers can fight legislative attacks on LGBTQ+ representation in schools by going on strike until the laws are repealed.
Wood, Landers and other Left Voice members are also preparing to cover the potential Teamsters strike at UPS and will try to bring people who attended the Queer Liberation March to UPS pickets. They are both inspired by the history of gay activists in London supporting a miners strike in 1984-5, which resulted in more conservative miners recognizing the solidarity they received from the queer community and organizing their union to oppose anti-LGBTQ+ laws.
SBWU members across the country continue to coordinate a national campaign for a union contract. Flores said that there is strong support across the union that a contract should codify coverage of trans healthcare and the right to express identity in the workplace.
Aguilar said that he is organizing a campaign with ALU in his workplace to oppose his bosses’ lack of response to the harassment of his trans co-workers. They plan to use a public message-board in the workplace to expose the issue. He hopes that along with making the workplace safer for his co-workers, it can demonstrate the collective power that a union provides. While the ALU has undergone intense union-busting which currently limits its capacity, Aguilar has walkouts and strikes in mind as other ways the union can one day support LGBTQ+ rights and other workplace issues.
He hopes more labor activists will understand how common queer workers are and see how supporting them actually strengthens the labor movement.
“In [my workplace] there’s a lot of queer workers,” Aguilar said. “It’s beneficial to us to show them we’re organizing as our true authentic selves and there’s nothing to actually fear when going against the bosses.”