Grand Divisions

Tennessee Equality Project seeks to advance and protect the civil rights of our State’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons and their families in each Grand Division.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day Edition: Making the Connection between the Labor and Equality Movements in TN

Teacher Rights ARE Human Rights (photo from the March rally)
Happy Labor Day!  Most of the media coverage of the holiday will focus on traffic reports, cookouts, sales, and the like.  Lost is any historical connection to the Labor Movement that made the holiday possible, not to mention the two-day weekend to which the holiday is attached, and a host of other things we take for granted that were hard won victories.  We see the effects everywhere, but we lose sight of the cause.

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.

-Chris Sanders


Jonathan Cole said...

Actually, I can think of one tangible way that TEP's efforts helped the labor movement in 2011. Prior to HB600's approval in the TN House, TEP and other groups were able to stop the advance of HB598. This bill contained the anti-gay provisions of HB600 as well as anti-living wage provisions that would have repealed existing living wages and health insurance benefits extended to employees of government contractors.

Chris Sanders said...

I think that's definitely a candidate. I would look at that as something city and county governments did for unions primarily. We were certainly involved, though, and I think we were genuinely motivated to protect some of the existing labor arrangements as well as non-discrimination ordinances. So I can see it.