|Teacher Rights ARE Human Rights (photo from the March rally)|
How Labor has helped the cause of equality in TN: Tennessee is a "right to work" (right to fire) state, so racking up achievements in the area of worker protections is a hard one. But the two laws that we've passed--the 2009 Metro non-discrimination ordinance and the 2011 CAN DO law--both came about with the significant help of organized labor. The International Association of Firefighters, the Service Employees International Union, the AFL-CIO, and the Central Labor Council have lent their endorsements to these laws that seek to protect employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In both cases, the support of Labor was vital to make it easier for the Council to support these measures. I should also add that Metro Nashville Education Association negotiated the first non-discrimination policy that included sexual orientation and gender identity for teachers in Tennessee. That policy built momentum for the 2009 Metro NDO.
There's endlessly more to do to protect workers in Tennessee from discrimination, but the support of Labor helps remind lawmakers and the public that we're talking about basic fairness on the job. And that kind of frame helps cool heads when religious pronouncements get thrown around, as they inevitably do when an equality bill is introduced.
Is it a two-way street?: Labor has clearly helped the Equality Movement in Tennessee, but I'd be hard pressed to find a way that we've returned the favor. The first thing I think we can do is remember and honor the history of help we have received. We remember the lawmakers who have made a difference. We sometimes remember our own community's activists. But we rarely remember and continue to thank our allies. Let's make it a point to remember and thank our allies in Labor.
The second approach involves looking at the overlapping patterns of relationships with friend and foe. Maybe it's possible for the Equality Movement to go its own way without regard to other causes and other issues, but I doubt it. Philosophically it seems wrong. From a practical point of view it seems that the well of good will must dry up at some point if our community always comes calling with a hand out and never a hand to help. Looking at mutual opportunities and mutual threats in the political sphere seems like a good place to begin. It's significant that the same politicians often push anti-labor and anti-equality legislation. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, for example, is notoriously anti-labor, but he has also opposed the state's domestic partnership law, and it ain't because he's aiming higher for marriage equality. We could find similar examples in Wilson and Williamson Counties in Tennessee.
Speaking of Williamson County and Wisconsin, guess who's going to be in Franklin on October 25. Governor Scott Walker will be here to speak at a partisan political fundraiser. There happens to be a protest marking his appearance.
Those of us who care about equality in Tennessee should be looking at specific opportunities to collaborate with Labor, as the Memphis community did in June at the Justice for All rally. But it's also clear, when one considers the kind of attacks that workers and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have endured this year, that we need to build a longer term, statewide coalition of resistance to those efforts that would turn back the clock. Labor Day provides a good opportunity to think more about how to make that happen.