Organization combines labor, LGBT rights
Pride At Work National Convention
Hilton San Diego, California
When Dan Sturgis started working for General Motors 30 years ago, he couldn’t put a picture of his partner on his desk.
He learned to cope with the snickers of co-workers behind his back.
But over the stretch of three decades, Sturgis has watched the climate in his field become more welcoming to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. He looks to his union, and involvement in the AFL-CIO organization Pride At Work, as catalysts of this change.
“A lot of people in this day and age are still afraid to come out, but a lot of us have taken that into our positions to send a message that we’re here,” said Sturgis, who works as a test driver at the GM’s Milford Proving Ground. “The workplace has changed. It’s a big thing to me. It’s much better to be secure in your surroundings and to know you are doing a good job based on your talents.”
That’s exactly the message Pride At Work wants to send to union workplaces across America, said Jeremy Bishop, program director for Pride At Work in Washington, D.C.
“For union folks, it’s just a matter of justice,” Bishop said. “We believe people’s work is what they should be judged on, not who they are. Anybody who does good work should be rewarded for that work and not be penalized because they are gay, African-American or trans.”
Working for justice
While chapters of Pride At Work have existed since the 1970s, the organization was officially created as a constituency group of the AFL-CIO in 1999.
Bishop’s union activism began while working for the national office of PFLAG shortly after graduating college. He helped organize a union for the office and became a shop steward.
“I really see unions as a way of concretely addressing issues of class and racism in our movement,” Bishop said. “And because so many benefits are defined by marriage, many LGBT folks are not getting equal pay. We don’t get the same benefit structure as heterosexual couples do.”
Pride At Work works within unions to educate members about issues LGBT folk face, including inclusive contract language, adding domestic partnership benefits, health care benefits and pension benefits.
“We also work in the larger LGBT community to explain why unions are important and advocate for worker justice issues in all avenues,” Bishop said. “We like to think of ourselves as the conscience of the LGBT movement.”
R.J. Beaumia is a third-generation union member. His grandmother, father and several uncles were all union members, mostly of the UAW.
Almost immediately after landing a job at the Ford Michigan Truck plant, Beaumia immersed himself in union activism, writing campaign literature for UAW Local 900 in Wayne, and eventually becoming editor of his union’s newspaper, the Local 900 News. He also writes columns on his gay labor experiences for Between The Lines.
While conditions have improved over the years, Beaumia still operates on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach regarding his sexuality.
“Being openly gay in an auto factory is too difficult, but it’s getting so much better. Many people close to me know I’m gay. There are varying degrees of my being out. I will say, though, that I’m respected and liked by me peers, and I’ve never felt threatened or unsafe. And thanks to the union, Ford has a no-tolerance policy for harassment based on sexual orientation.”
A learning curve
Dan Sturgis, a member of UAW Local 653, comes from a strong union family; his father and two siblings are all active members.
As Sturgis became more involved with labor issues, he saw the connection between gay rights and workers’ rights. He now serves as a representative on the civil rights and equal applications and diversity programs at General Motors. He’s also co-president of Pride At Work and a state federation board member for the AFL-CIO.
“I’m not a rabble-rouser, but I will be in your face,” Sturgis said of how he deals with co-workers. “They know I’m there, they know they have to deal with me, but I do it subtle.”
While Sturgis has seen a lot of progress in the time he’s worked at General Motors, he knows the next generation has more work to do, especially with transgender issues.
“It’s a learning curve for the union,” he said. “I don’t know if it will be in my lifetime, but I’m here to open these doors. It seems every generation gets a little bit easier, and the union is the same way.”