By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
Ask David Hecker why the LGBT civil rights movement is important to him, and the answer comes easily and forcefully.
“It’s civil rights,” he says, “and there is no difference in fighting against discrimination based on race, based on religion, based on sexual orientation or based on gender identity and expression.”
Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan since 2000, was active in the fight against Proposal 2 in 2004 and is one of those straight people who “get it.” And he’s passionate about helping others “get it” as well.
“I think it goes with every single thing we do as a union,” Hecker tells BTL.
No matter the issue, he says, it takes one-on-one conversations with people. “You’re not going to get people to maybe change their thinking through a flyer or through a well-written article in the newsletter – as important as those things are. It takes the conversation, because you have to get people to think about things and to bring them to logical conclusions.”
Hecker’s voice becomes strident, even excited, when talking about “bringing” others to “where I am” on the issue of LGBT human rights. “If you’re talking to a Jewish person who, you know, is not where I am on the issue, one conversation I would have with them is, ‘How do you feel about the fact that when it’s our holiest holidays in September and October, and you therefore want to take time off, want to go to Synagogue, that you have to take vacation time? But yet when it’s Christmas … that’s a holiday and everybody’s off?” he says. “Get them realizing the portion of their life that is discriminated against … and help people make those links.”
Hecker’s passion for worker’s rights and equality is a family tradition that began with his paternal grandparents, who emigrated from Poland in the early part of the last century and worked in the needle trades in New York, where Hecker is from originally. His grandfather was in the cap maker’s union. Both grandparents voted Socialist, according to Hecker.
Hecker’s mother, who worked for a hospital in the Bronx, refused to cross her former union’s picket line when she was promoted to management, and his father is still working to organize the insurance industry at the age of 88.
“If I thought otherwise,” Hecker laughs, “I probably wouldn’t be fed when I was growing up with my parents, you know?”
Hecker and his wife, Alice, met while with the same union in Wisconsin, and they are busily passing on the union tradition to their three children.
“We incorporate our family, as you would guess, into a lot of what we do,” Hecker says. “The 17-year-old, when she was a month old, was on the picket line at Eastern Airlines.” When the U.S. Supreme Court heard the University of Michigan’s affirmative action case, Hecker and his wife “took the kids out of school for the day and threw them into the back of the van and just drove down.”
“For both Alice and I, these obviously aren’t just jobs, right? We’re unbelievably fortunate in that the jobs we are able to hold are our passion and our values,”
Hecker is incredibly active, serving on various boards and councils, including the Michigan Association for Children with Emotional Disorders, the Jewish Community Council and the Michigan Democratic Party.
Hecker laughs when asked if he has any hobbies.
“There aren’t a great many hobbies. This work – it’s not a job, it’s a passion, it’s how you lead your life,” he says.
However, while the man was taken out of New York, New York hasn’t been taken out of the man; Hecker is a passionate Yankees fan.
“If I’m driving home and I’ve got my FM radio so I can listen to the ballgames [or] sitting in the back yard, reading the paper, doing some work and the ballgame’s on in the background, the sun’s out – that’s just great,” he says.
By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman