LGBT activists on the front lines of Wis. union protests

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday February 24, 2011

As protests against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to curtail state workers' benefits and collective bargaining rights approach their 11th day, LGBT activists continue to play an active role in lobbying opposition to the controversial measure.

Katie Belanger, executive director of Fair Wisconsin, the state's largest LGBT advocacy organization, has joined many of her organization's members in daily protests at the state Capitol. She told EDGE the movement against Walker's bill is unlike anything she has seen in her lifetime -- which is saying a lot considering Madison is a protest-friendly locale.

"That will be the thing that stays, that people are working together," she said. "They are here and they're not going to go anywhere.

Belanger said it was important to Fair Wisconsin to vocally support the union workers' opposition to Walker's proposal; not only because many LGBT people are public employees, but also because labor unions actively opposed the state's 2006 constitutional amendment that bars same-sex marriages and civil unions. Unions also supported the 2009 introduction of a statewide domestic partnership registry that included gay and lesbian couples.

"We've been right there on the front line with our union brothers and sisters since the protests started," said Belanger. "We feel strongly that it's our turn to step up for them in their fight to exist and this is an even bigger issue than just supporting them. Our government should never be in the business of taking away any person's rights at any time."

These efforts continue to take place against the backdrop of unparalleled acts of political theater-the state's 14 Democratic senators have left the state to avoid voting on the bill-and the apparent threats of similar union-busting measures in Ohio, Indiana, Florida, Michigan and other states. The majority of the tens of thousands of protesters who have descended upon Madison oppose Walker's bill; clogging the halls of the state Capitol and filling the building's surrounding sidewalks to the brim.

A prank call between a Buffalo Beast journalist who posed as billionaire Tea Party supporter David Koch and Walker revealed the governor has no plans to compromise with Democrats and union leaders who oppose his proposal, even though they have agreed to an increase in public employees' pension and health contributions.

Walker remains staunchly opposed to bargaining rights remaining in place, even as a Gallup and USA Today poll released on Tuesday, Feb. 22, reported 61 percent of respondents opposed his plan. He claimed in a press conference on Wednesday, Feb. 23, the cuts are necessary to close Wisconsin's budget gap. He also said 1,500 state workers would have to be laid off by June 30 if lawmakers fail to approve the bill.

Standing in solidarity with the unions

LGBT activists from outside the state have also made the trek to Madison to support the unions' cause. Judy Heithmar was part of a Join the Impact-Chicago contingent that protested for several days. She described Walker's proposal as potentially "igniting a fire" that could affect workers' rights throughout the country.

"There is power in numbers, as we saw recently in Egypt, and if I can be one more person in that crowd of thousands, we become one person stronger in winning the fight," said Heithmar.

She hoped other LGBT activists would join the struggle.

"Queer activists need to support the labor movement, because we are laborers ourselves," added Heithmar, noting workers' rights are largely intertwined with employment non-discrimination measures and other LGBT issues. "If we want to stand up to those trying to strip us of our rights, we need to come together, work together, and demand the end to discrimination of all people."

Peggy Shorey, executive director of Pride at Work, described the protests in Madison as a "really important moment in history" for the LGBT movement. "We need to take this as our moment to step up and be the best allies we know how to be [to labor] because we can't afford to outcome if we don't do so," she told EDGE.

Shorey added the stakes are high because union contracts are often the only protection LGBT workers have in states that lack LGBT-specific non-discrimination statutes. Without collective bargaining, many gay and lesbian public employees would also face a much more difficult road to gain domestic partner health coverage and other benefits.

"The proposals in Wisconsin right now are extremely draconian," added Shorey. "It's not about the budget and financial savings, but it's really about trying to penalize and take away peoples' rights, which has a real impact for LGBT workers."

Harvey Milk and the Teamsters

LGBT activists and organized labor coalitions date back to the days when Harvey Milk forged a partnership with Teamsters at Coors who were fighting to get a union contact. The Teamsters agreed to hire more gay workers in exchange for their support of a boycott against the company.

That boycott proved successful and Milk's friend, Cleve Jones of Unite Here, and other organizers have carried the torch.

Unite Here's Sleep with the Right People campaign has raised awareness of hotels who do not support union contracts among their workers. Some activists criticized the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's decision to hold their annual convention at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in San Francisco amid a labor union protest last September.

Most national LGBT groups have remained quiet on the demonstrations in Madison, even as announced on Wednesday, Feb. 23, it will spearhead "emergency solidarity rallies" at each state capital this weekend.

"It is inexcusable that some politicians are using the people as pawns in their quest for power and control," said the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in a statement released on Tuesday, Feb. 22. "The assault on working people is a disgrace, and we are heartened that so many are standing firm and saying 'no' to this abuse of power. We join them in solidarity."

The National Stonewall Democrats also issued a statement indicating the organization would "stand strong with [their] union brothers and sisters."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to to read more of his work.