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AFSCME stands in solidarity with the LGBTQ community during Pride Month

Photos: AFSCME Staff
By Pete Levine ·
AFSCME stands in solidarity with the LGBTQ community during Pride Month
Ben Needham, director of strategic initiatives for the Human Rights Campaign.

There were two messages that sounded loud and clear during AFSCME’s Pride Month virtual panel discussion on Wednesday.

The first was that labor rights and LGBTQ rights are inextricably linked. The second was the need for federal legislation outlawing discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

The linkage between labor and LGBTQ rights was a dominant theme in the remarks by President Lee Saunders, who opened the hourlong discussion, as well as the two guest speakers, Ben Needham, the director of strategic initiatives for the Human Rights Campaign (who worked for AFSCME previously) and Josette Jaramillo, the president of the Colorado AFL-CIO and a member of AFSCME Local 1335 (Council 18).

Saunders began with a firm promise: “As long as I am president of this union, we will continue to be on the front lines of [the LGBTQ fight.] At AFSCME, we believe workers’ rights and LGBTQ rights are one and the same. It’s not just a shared struggle; it’s the same struggle – for freedom and equality, for dignity and humanity.”

Saunders also offered some historical context highlighting how AFSCME has fought to protect the rights of LGBTQ union members: in 1974, when two AFSCME locals – one in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and another in Seattle – bargained contracts that specifically included non-discrimination provisions based on sexual orientation; later, when DC 37 led the charge to secure domestic partner benefits for all municipal employees in New York City; and up through today, as AFSCME partners with AFT and SEIU to form the Labor for Equality Council, dedicated specifically to passing the Equality Act.

“For many decades, absent any state and federal laws on the books,” said Saunders, “it was membership in a union and coverage by an inclusive collective bargaining agreement that was the only protection many LGBTQ people had.”

Both Needham and Jaramillo shared their thoughts on how the fight for labor and LGBTQ rights mirror and reinforce one another. They also discussed how working in the labor movement has informed their involvement as LGBTQ activists.

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Josette Jaramillo, president of the Colorado AFL-CIO and a member of AFSCME Local 1335 (Council 18).

Needham said that everything he learned as an activist he learned from the labor movement.

Chief among those lessons?

“Labor shows up for everyone. They return the favor,” said Needham of the powerful gestures of solidarity unions like AFSCME demonstrate. “How are we showing up as allies? How are we showing up to say, ‘How can we help?’”

Other lessons that Needham learned from labor? “To fight like hell” and “when there is no way, find a way.”

“No isn’t an option when we fight for LGTBQ people,” Needham said.

Jaramillo, who lives and works in Pueblo, Colorado, said, “I can wear my union hat with a rainbow pin when we’re fighting for worker rights and when we fight for LGBTQ rights.”

While education – of employers, managers and employees – is a key tool in her arsenal, Jaramillo said that “it’s pretty easy to connect the dots” between the rights that workers deserve and the rights that LBGTQ workers deserve.

“When we’re talking about equality…we’re talking about all workers,” she said.

Jaramillo also serves on the executive board of Pride at Work, which represents LGBTQ union members.

One of the most pressing issues the panelists are fighting for is the passage of the Equality Act, which will provide federal protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Currently, 27 states lack LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws.

One of the Equality Act’s co-authors, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, also joined the virtual discussion to express solidarity with LGBTQ union members.

Merkley said that many recent victories for members of the LGBTQ community were the result of activists like the ones on the call, “who voted, who marched and fought year after year to push America to live up to its founding ideals as a nation where everyone was created equal.”

“But in spite of all that progress, we still have a long way to go,” Merkley said.

That was a final message that came out of the talk – that despite the progress that’s been made for the LGBTQ community, more needed to be done. It’s a call AFSCME remains ready and proud to answer.

To watch the wide-ranging discussion and hear much more from the panelists, click here.

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