Lesbian Assumes a Top AFL-CIO Role

Nancy Wohlforth, active with Pride at Work, joins Executive Committee

The AFL-CIO’s July convention in Chicago made national headlines for an historic rupture in the long-standing united labor front, but also included a development with potentially profound implications for the relationship of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community to America’s union effort.

The big news came from the decision by the 2.5 million-member Brotherhood of Teamsters, the rapidly growing Service Employees International Union, and the United Food and Commercial Works to separate from the AFL-CIO, a major loss for the umbrella labor organization.

Another major event not as widely chronicled, but potentially of great significance in the gay rights struggle, was the election of Nancy Wohlforth, a lesbian labor activist, to the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council. Wohlforth, co-president of Pride at Work, an LGBT-focused official constituent group within the labor organization, and secretary treasurer of the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), is the first out lesbian or gay person to serve on the Executive Committee.

For Wohlforth, her election was the culmination of a lifetime’s effort in the labor and progressive movements. An eloquent, down-to-earth spokeswoman for LGBT and workers’ rights, she is given to unapologetic statements about labor and politics—especially regarding the current president’s administration—that some might find offensive. But, such outspokenness is a characteristic that has most likely served Wohlforth well at the forefront of the gay and labor rights movements.

Wohlforth began her activist career at the age of 16 registering black voters in Alabama. In college she found cause in the movement against the war in Vietnam. Following graduation from Columbia with a degree in American history, Wohlforth got a clerical job through the OPEIU, and soon after became a union officer. De rigueur for someone with her background, she has been arrested on various picket lines around the country. Wohlforth met her partner of 24 years on a picket line in a strike against Blue Shield of California.

Wohlforth is also a founding member of the San Francisco-based Lesbian and Gay Labor Alliance, created in 1980 to fight homophobia in the labor movement and specifically to press for domestic partner benefits for gay and lesbian workers, a stance well ahead of its time.

“Back then nobody really even knew what we were talking about when we mentioned domestic partner benefits,” Wohlforth said.

In 1994, the Alliance became Pride at Work, a national LGBT labor union. Determined to gain acceptance, the group sought to officially join the AFL-CIO.

“A real war, let me tell you,” Wohlforth recalled. “They set up a special committee to study us for about a year and a half because on their Executive Council at that time there were many people who were very homophobic.”

Pride at Work’s greatest ally was current AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, who pushed hard for the group’s status as an official constituent group. When the final vote came down, the group’s opponents abstained rather than voting no. However, unlike other AFL-CIO constituent organizations, Pride at Work was not given a budget for another two years.

“We still had to run the union out of our briefcases for a while,” Wohlforth explained.

Unions have been on the run in the U.S. for almost half a century. Fifty years ago unions represented 35 percent of American workers, but now that figure is a mere 12 percent. The service economy and globalization have not helped. Manufacturing jobs, the traditional base of union membership, have moved overseas, while white-collar and service jobs traditionally did not include many union members.

“It’s a huge challenge,” Wohlforth said. “The statistics speak for themselves.”

But at a time when LGBT people are fighting for equal rights and domestic partner benefits including retirement benefits and health care, Wohlforth said unions are an integral and essential part of winning those gains.

“Unions can bargain things like DP benefits in contracts,” she said. “They are one of the few ways we can guarantee our rights… Once those things are in a contract, a corporation can’t take them away.”

Wohlforth noted that unions provide a potent pool of allies for the LGBT community. An example she used was the recent marriage amendment passed in Michigan that denied domestic benefits to state employees. Because many of those who took advantage of the benefits were heterosexual union members, labor has been outspoken in criticizing the changes the vote has brought about.

Wohlforth said she intends to draw on her civil rights background in her position as an AFL-CIO officer. She has consistently pushed for gay, lesbian, and trans-inclusive labor contracts, as well pressing the unions she is part of to take progressive stances on other social issues.

“Being on the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO helps because it gives me a little more political clout to talk to people who don’t quite get it,” Wohlforth said. “Last year we had a fight around the [Federal Marriage Amendment], but this year we had no fight. We were able to get the Executive Council to come out against it.”

And even though unions have lost members, Wohlforth still sees them as one of the greatest forces for social change in the country.

“We still have fifteen million members,” she said.

Wohlforth is particularly proud of Pride at Work’s efforts on the gay marriage bill that just passed the Legislature in California, and the resources the group is mobilizing to continue the struggle there.

However, the Teamsters and other unions that bailed out of the AFL-CIO have promised a more concerted emphasis on organizing and increasing membership rolls rather than advocating for issues they considered beyond labor’s scope. The AFL-CIO Executive Council, in contrast, opposes the Bush war in Iraq.

But Wohlforth disputed the view that positions taken by the Executive Council are what motivated unions to bolt the AFL-CIO. She said it was all a struggle over turf and dues. She noted specifically the long-standing support that the Service Employees International Union has given LGBT rights.

Despite recent setbacks, Wohlforth is confident that the labor movement will prosper in the future, especially in age of increased wage pressures and overseas competition.

“There will be further declines in membership,” she said. “But when people get tired of the fact that their quality of life is constantly under attack because so much has been spent on the Iraq war instead of education or the country’s infrastructure, they’ll realize they can’t go it alone. Unions cut across race and religion, and are still one of the most effective ways to organize people and fight for what’s right.”

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