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Howard Wallace

Page history last edited by Collier 13 years ago

Political Affairs interview

march 23 2004

http://www.politicalaffairs.net/on-the-frontlines-with-howard-wallace/

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Editor’s note: Howard Wallace is a long-time peace activist, trade union organizer, senior and gay rights activist. He has been a Teamster and recently retired as a leader in Local 250 of SEIU, a large health care union in Northern California. He currently works with Senior Action building support among seniors, the lesbian and gay community and labor for health care reform and rights for health care workers. He also helped found Pride at Work. 

PA: One of the earliest struggles you were involved in was the Coors boycott in the 1970s. Can you describe how you got involved in that? 
HW: In 1975, two other people and I initiated an organization called Bay-Area Gay Liberation (BAGL). Its aims were to advance lesbian and gay liberation by reaching out to potential allies within the labor movement, the feminist movement and movements of people of color and national minorities. 

At one point we overwhelmingly supported a city strike. There were no other community organizations endorsing a city strike. We followed up by supporting the creation of the agricultural labor board, something the United Farm Workers (UFW) were pushing for. As a result of the strike, there was some anti-union legislation that was also put on the ballot as part of a backlash against labor. So we went to the leaders of the city workers’ union and told them that we supported their efforts against this legislation – anything we could do we would do. They asked how they could help us. I said, “Well, it would be very important to let it be known in the community that labor is on our side too and is concerned about our rights.” I said, “Our influence is substantial, even though we are a fairly new organization. It would carry a lot more weight if labor took some steps in our direction.” So they said, “What do you suggest?” I said, “Maybe a press conference to that effect – of mutual support.” I suspected they might hesitate or turn me down, but they said, “That’s a great idea.” We lined up 21 labor leaders from all over the West Coast, including from the building trades, the Teamsters in the Bay Area and Richard Chávez, Cesar’s brother. It was all over the news that morning. 

That laid a basis for a good working relationship. The position the labor movement took publicly when we had our press conference was, “Anyone who pays dues to the union should not have their private life the subject of anything of an employer on the job. It’s only elementary human rights to defend the rights of lesbian and gay workers.” So it was a positive statement, and we had strong statements against right-wing attacks on unions. 

Close to that time, we took a position in support of the Coors boycott. The Teamsters had had a local strike at the Coors distributor. They came to Harvey Milk and I and asked for our support for the strike and boycott. Both Harvey and I endorsed it. Harvey used some of his influence with bartenders and bar owners in the Tavern Guild (a guild of about 100 gay bars in San Francisco). BAGL pushed the boycott strongly in all the bars. 

At that time Coors had a lie detector test they required of all their employees, which included the question, “Are you a homosexual?” I remembered Joe Coors fighting the Teamsters in Golden, Colorado. Joe Coors, who had become an influential advisor to Ronald Reagan, also had been a regent at the University of Colorado and had persistently red baited some highly respected liberal-minded professors. He had sent people into their classrooms to spy on them and write down what they said – a very vulgar kind of McCarthyism. 

Before we got into the boycott, Latinos had played a big role in the boycott in Colorado itself because Coors had almost no Latinos in its workforce in an area that was about one-fifth Latino. Corky Gonzalez and the Crusade for Justice and other forces had earlier carried out a boycott. 

So I had a strong sense of the potential of this boycott because the main center of activists within the budding lesbian and gay movement was in bars because that was a meeting place and a recreational place historically. It was a meeting place where people could let their hair down and be themselves, except for police harassment, and meet other lesbian and gay people in a relatively safe atmosphere. So we started getting Coors out of the bars. We not only got it out of the bars in San Francisco, but we extended the campaign in about 13 other states. 

PA: Was there a positive response from other parts of the labor movement and other progressive forces? 

HW: The press conference and the boycott made a major impact on the labor movement. Another thing that helped explain some of the meaning of this boycott was that when Harvey and I were first approached by the Teamsters leadership, it was an old leadership that didn’t want to talk about our support, they just wanted to get it. Then a few months later there was a trusteeship installed led by Allan Baird and Andy Certellas. They made it clear that they weren’t going to have that position and that they appreciated our support. Allen went around the Bay Area giving speeches thanking the lesbian and gay community for its support for the boycott. About that time I heard that Kim Toomey, head of the hospital workers’ union, later the health care workers’ union which I just retired from, had put out a memo to his staff saying, “There will be no more derogatory language or references to lesbian and gay people in the staff of the union.” He made it clear that they needed to have a positive view of the lesbian and gay community. It didn’t mean that all homophobia was wiped away; it hasn’t been to this day. 

PA: Why was it important to organize a constituency group like Pride at Work? 

HW: At that time, we had BAGL, and I said that it was important to build alliances beyond matters of mutual conveniences to strong and lasting alliances. When Harvey got elected to the Board of Supervisors, he became an immediate ally of the unions on the board. When he was assassinated and replaced by Harry Britt, Harry was a strong labor ally on the board too. Years later Tom Amiano, a schoolteacher whom I first met in BAGL, was involved in battles with us where we saw how the union movement came out against the Briggs initiative, which was an attempt to ban gay teachers from the classroom – real Nazi-like legislation. At the beginning of the campaign the polls showed us losing two-to-one, and we eventually won two-to-one. To this day when I talk about that, I remind lesbian and gay people that labor on a statewide basis, the California State Federation of Labor, came out in support of us against the Briggs initiative early on when the polls showed us losing by a landslide. I could give a dozen other examples of labor being there for us. 

There were other things happening in terms of our community relating to the labor movement. We knew that there were certain unions with a significant number of lesbian and gay people. One of them was Local 2 of the hotel workers’ union. We helped that union organize workers in the Castro area, which was the heart of our community. We were successful in a couple of cases and failed in others. But the fact is we went out on the picket lines and picketed for months at a number of restaurants. We really kept people out of those places when we were picketing. Our community supported us. That union at the time had an upstart leader named Charles Lamb who invited me and other lesbian and gay speakers to every action where there was community support presented on the platform. 

In 1977-1978 the Coors boycott revived again when the brewery workers went out on strike in Golden, Colorado. I worked with Dave Sickler who heads the building trades in California today, but at the time was a field representative for the AFL-CIO and came out of the brewery workers’ union. This was a far-sighted and different kind of leadership within the brewery workers at the plant. That strike had the whole AFL-CIO involved significantly, and we played a big role in it. By the time the AFL-CIO ended that boycott the sales went from 43 percent sales in California to 14 percent. They’re still largely a non-union employer, but we took some huge bites out of their hide. 

PA: Why not just say, “It’s enough to be a union member and fight for your rights and be silent on one’s gay identity?” Why organize a lesbian and gay constituency group? HW: It gets into the whole question of identity politics. The lesbian and gay movement developed without a whole lot of help from the left. I think a lot of it was that they felt they had enough of a burden with McCarthyite anti-Communism to be associated with outcasts like lesbians and gays. It wasn’t the courageous thing, but it is what happened in the early stages of the lesbian and gay movement. A lot of it was simply just not understanding the movement and absorbing puritanical and homophobic conceptions. In fact it was just basically a taboo subject in society in general for many years, when I was in my teens and twenties. It resulted in a whole lot of suicides; I was suicidal myself as a result. There were a whole lot of beatings in back alleys, and if you sought police support, they were likely to pile on and beat the shit out of you. So there’s a history there that marks the community. 

The lesbian and gay community really was a part of a counter-culture that brought about some of the radicalization of the 1960s and challenged the institutions of society. Lesbians and gays had been victims of all the institutions of society in the past – church, state, legal, business, industrial, military. So there are strong anti-authoritarian currents among lesbian and gay people (and today bisexual and transgendered people). 

The labor movement is insular and tends to be conservative. It needs allies just as we needed allies. When it’s backed into a corner it will look for allies any place, including gays, socialists or Communists or radicals – if those forces are ready to respond. And we did respond. It showed up in some of the restaurant organizing. Where we were not involved in the heart of the organizing, they didn’t win. I remember one sit-in at a restaurant about half a block from my house. It was planned without any input from lesbians and gays. A lot of straight blue-collar workers – good guys – came and sat in at this restaurant, and they didn’t stop to work with us, let us know what going on, when it was going to happen and gave us last minute notice. It was mostly straights sitting in at this gay restaurant. Well one of the things the employer used was, “If they get in here, you’ll all lose your jobs. They’ll be taken by straights.” That influenced them, and they lost the election by two or three votes. Those two or three votes could have been easily accounted for by the kind of chill it sent among these workers who liked one thing about this place: they could be themselves. They could yell across the room; they could be campy. And the customers liked it. It was part of the appeal of the restaurant. The waiters were real friendly; they would joke with you, and treat it like their living room. They were professional and did their job well, but the atmosphere was light-hearted and friendly. It was not morose and severe, you know, Teutonic. 

PA: It sounds like not only do lesbian and gay workers have a stake in having an organization like that, but straight workers do also. 

HW: Yes. In San Francisco, Pride at Work started as the Lesbian and Gay Labor Alliance. I had planned all along to organize lesbian and gay workers. If I had put all of my attention exclusively on that, there would have been a national body faster, even when Kirkland was in power. Dave Sickler said, “We ought to have a national organization,” when I had raised the idea with him. Kirkland for all of his bad positions on foreign policy was not bad on the gay issue, at least in some important instances. When there was a big anti-gay measure on the ballot in Colorado, the state federation of labor took no position on it. Kirkland sent a letter to the head of the state federation, who had recently become a born-again Christian, and informed him of an AFL-CIO policy supporting gay rights. He got that position turned around from no position to opposition. 

PA: You’ve hinted at contradictions in the current leadership of the labor movement. 

HW: The mainstream leadership of the labor movement for the most part is pretty insular and doesn’t often reach out to the communities, but when it does, it pays off big time. But they tend to work through their friends in the Democratic Party – that’s their outreach. Those friends may be progressive; they may be not at all progressive. But that’s where they do their main outreach. The existence of these affiliate groups drawing upon people from all unions means that you have a transmission belt. My big criticism is that under Kirkland they’d allowed the constituent groups to be paper organizations or something to help elect certain politicians. 

Now under Sweeney a significant reform is that they are allowed to do more community work and do what we all want: build the labor movement. They have a dual function of building mutual support between the communities and the labor movement, and that’s a very helpful thing. No one can do it like these constituency groups at their best. 

Pride at Work is now linked with an international movement. I was last year in Australia attending a world gathering of lesbian and gay trade unionists. We’re doing the same thing internationally. I have for years discussed with people the question of to what degree should your life be affected by the fact that you are gay or Black or a woman or so on. There’s no escaping the fact that your life is affected by those things and by oppression. For most of us, I think, that’s not your whole life, but you can’t ignore the side where you have been oppressed, the side you need to express. So in that much identity politics are necessary and inescapable. To be effective you can’t ignore those things. 

On the other hand we are faced by assaults on our rights that go across the board and don’t discriminate much. They’re driving wedges wherever they can – between lesbians and gays, between men and women, between people of different colors and so on. So we have to be conscious of that. Again our lesbian and gay identity becomes important because we can become more and more internationalist. Once we educate our communities we can be part of that broader struggle much more effectively. 

But the broader struggle is necessary right now. We need to unite these forces, and we need to find some common ground. I do that every day. I am on the board of Senior Action. Seniors and lesbians and gays are very concerned about health care issues, the lack of adequate universal health care, the uninsured and the race to the bottom of the health care industry. It’s a common concern. It is easy for us to build coalitions between seniors and lesbians and gays, and we’ve done it on a number of issues. We’ve supported the health care workers on the issue of short-staffing, which is one of the biggest issues in the health industry. It has a devastating effect on the people in the hospital bed. So there is a potential common bond there. If people don’t see it, it doesn’t take much taking to explain that the health care worker and the patient have some common interests. And often that patient is Black or Brown or lesbian or gay or both or somebody that bears all the marks of oppression in some other circumstance. 

This society inculcates in us a kind of compulsive competition all in the name of individualism, but it’s not individualism. It’s what I call atomism. You break down your ties with other people and make yourself isolated. That’s not individualism. Independent thinking is individualism in the best sense. What passes for it today basically is looking at everybody commercially or socially as a potential enemy. It also serves to build paranoia. It does more to break down family ties than anything lesbians and gays could ever play a role in. 

We are about to face a national attack. The ultra right is bound and determined to put gay marriage as one of the major issues in the presidential campaign. They say we’re threatening the institution of marriage. A lot of the Democratic politicians, even Gephardt who has a lesbian daughter, say the country isn’t ready for gay marriage. Well, if you were a leader, you’d help make them ready by explaining a few elementary things like that the marriage contract is basically a civil contract that has nothing to do with religion or the sacredness of marriage. You can be an axe murderer and get married, right? You can get married in prison. You could be the worst sort of criminal and you can get married. There’s nothing sacred about marriage when it comes to the state. The state has one interest: how is your estate to be divided. It’s a property question. It moves over into a lot of other rights. For example, the right to visit a loved one in the hospital. There are cities and states where lesbians and gays can’t visit a loved one on their deathbed. 

PA: The federal marriage amendment is designed essentially to divide people? 

HW: That’s all it’s going to be used for in the presidential campaign – a wedge issue to weaken the movement. Lesbians and gays are overwhelmingly going all out to defeat Bush. The more wedges the ultra right can drive the more difficult it is to build a unified front to defeat Bush. This regime is really a bold, brazen ultra-rightist regime that has to go, but that doesn’t mean giving up criticism of the Democratic Party because their silence is deafening at times. Popular movements and more direct action are definitely needed.

 

 

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