Book Review: OUT IN THE UNION

OutInTheUnion

OUT IN THE UNION, by Miriam Frank, traces the intersections between the gay rights movement and the labor movement in America. The history is drawn largely from interviews with queer labor activists, and Frank quotes them at length throughout the book, giving her work the feeling of an oral history, ethnography or series of case studies. She provides contextualizing information, but OUT IN THE UNION largely defers to the activists who pushed their movements forward. As such, the book is deeply personal and specific rather than comprehensive. This is not a book that provides a dry and complete overview of queer-labor activism, but instead is a love letter to the victories and efforts of the people who lived that activism.

The book opens with the story of a trans man in a steelworkers’ union at the turn of the twentieth century. From there, the book leaps forward to cover how the emergent gay rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s was embraced (or not) as the labor movement sought to reinvent itself as manufacturing jobs moved first out of pro-union states and then out of the United States altogether. The hidden histories of queer workers prior to the 1960s are sparse in the text, emerging as context or as discrete moments in the interviewees’ lives.

Prior to OUT IN THE UNION, I was familiar with Frank’s work through Pride at Work, a pamphlet my own union used to better understand how and why to organize the QUILTBAG folks in our own ranks. This was years ago, back when I saw myself as a straight ally (back before I was out to anyone, even myself). The ethos of Pride at Work continues here: this is a book about organizing. The economics of unionization are supplanted by a blow-by-blow description of how various workplaces were or were not organized into unions. Frank remains an organizer at heart, and much of the book is devoted to recounts of how labor was able to use the particularities of an emerging queer activist culture to gain new ground or make new allies. In the case studies she presents—which range from bus drivers to auto workers to AIDS crisis workers—she uses organizing terms freely. Her target audience, clearly, are queer organizers out on the front lines, which necessarily limits the accessibility and audience of the book, which I think is a shame. It may find its audience out there in the front line, but from my experience working as a labor organizer there is little time to read even relevant and potentially useful books.

Reading OUT IN THE UNION was, for me, a particularly reflective and personal experience. Like many of the interviewees, I struggled with my own sexuality as I worked as a labor organizer. Fraught memories of coming to terms with my queerness are inextricably tied to the rollercoaster highs and lows of the organizing campaigns I worked for. Two regions which feature prominently in the book are southeast Michigan and Colorado—respectively why I, myself, was a campaign organizer and where I live now. Reading this book made me miss working in unions. It made me remember how hard that work is, and how necessary. It made me reflect (in a prescient and timely way given certain conditions current in my workplace today) on my discomfort living as a queer and unorganized person in a right-to-work state. I feel vulnerable, and even more so as a gender nonconforming queer individual. I feel vulnerable, like the people Frank records, and I want to fight back like they did and still are.

Frank writes with candor, both about the successful queer-labor alliances and the unsuccessful ones. Some were unsuccessful because the old guard of union leadership—typically straight white men in the skilled labor trades—struggled with creating space for and valuing the efforts of their queer brothers and sisters. Some were unsuccessful because a common source of oppression bonds communities together; Frank cites the climate in AIDS clinics where queer management overworked and exploited queer workers, but the workers viewed straight union agents as suspicious interlopers.

Frank uses the crossover of queer activism and the labor movement as a way to begin talking about class within the queer community. She points out more than once that queer people have always existed among the working class and in unions. She points out that being queer does not prevent managers from exploiting their workers. I was glad she used this lens throughout, but I wish she had taken it further. The book reads—I believe unintentionally—as very white. A handful of the interviewed activists are people of color, but most are white queer people. Given the layers of vulnerability queer poor workers of color face, it would have been a better book if race and class had both been discussed in relation to queer workers. In the epilogue, Frank cites the need for the labor movement to utilize queer immigrant workers to help reform immigration laws, but this is posited mostly as an aside.

OUT IN THE UNION ends with an epilogue tracing how the support of unions has helped marriage equality legislation get passed in multiple states. Frank uses this as a call to arms and a call to action to increase queer-labor joint activism. And while I appreciate that, I wish she had gone further. Marriage is not the only economic issue facing queer workers. Trans* workers are extremely vulnerable, often fired and rarely hired. I am, admittedly, less impressed or enthralled by the marriage equality movement, especially given that the fight has played out in legislative venues rather than in the workplace or on the streets. But, then again, most labor fights these days play out that way.

4 stars