It was only a few years ago that marriage was not equally available to all Americans, domestic partner relationships lacked clear benefits that married couples were offered, and people were regularly encouraged to hide their relationships when at work. It took LGBT activists inside of the labor movement to change this by intentionally coming together to make queer rights a key part of the movement for workers’ rights in the workplace. With projects like the AFL-CIO’s Pride at Work coalition and others, the issues of workplace democracy met the ongoing oppression that LGBTQA+ face on and off the job, and unions across the country began to see how powerful they were in addressing these injustices.
At SEIU, the Lavender Caucus has become a group of members in different locals who are addressing LGBTQA+ issues in the union through education, advocacy, and building relationships in the community and our workplaces. The Lavender Caucus at SEIU 503 was formed in the mid-1980s in an attempt to get sexual orientation added to the non-discrimination clause in higher education, but it had fizzled out in recent years.. That was until 2017 when member leader Taylor Bacon decided to come off of his job at the Parry Center for a month and dedicate his time to rebuild it and make it a vibrant and relevant part of our union.
“We are the hidden caucus. You don’t have to come out at work, you can pretend to be straight, and your coworkers wouldn’t know. So we are often invisible from the conversation,” said Taylor Bacon, explaining why it was so important to be public about their work building the caucus.
“So I wanted to go to Pride festivals and where the community congregates to show them our union is working on these issues. And it worked, we started to get notoriety for being a union that works to confront issues of oppression.”
While major strides have come along to address discrimination in the workplace, these continue to be ongoing struggles that queer people face when they show up to work. Almost a quarter of LGBTQA+ people report being passed up for a promotion, and more than half report hearing homophobic or transphobic comments or jokes from coworkers. For transgender employees, the numbers are even more striking with almost ninety-percent reporting some level of discrimination on the job and ongoing issues regarding things like equal healthcare access and the ability to use restrooms in their workplace. Because these problems happen in the workplace, the union has a unique position to work on them because of our powerful ability to unite people on the job.
In 2017 our union provided additional resources to the caucus to help build a robust program. This was the first grant of its type awarded to a caucus at Local 503, which helped to pave the way for other caucuses like the African American (AFRAM) and Latino caucuses that are building power for our union across the state.
With a vibrant caucus in place, Taylor is leading members to escalate their activism in 2019. This means going to fifteen Pride festivals and marches this year, building autonomous caucus chapters in Eugene and Springfield that can organize around local issues, and reshape a training with the Oregon Homecare Commission on how to work with aging members of the LGBT community.
“We want the Lavender Caucus to represent what our community needs, and that includes supporting adequate training for our members on how to support the LGBTQA+ community who uses homecare services,” says Bacon.
The caucus also recently sent a letter to Governor Kate Brown asking her to support transgender members of the national guard, who she oversees in Oregon, and who may be under attack because of changes in inclusivity policies at the national level.
“Most people take for granted getting married to the person they love, or holding hands with someone or being able to celebrate who they are, but it has been a long fight,” says Bacon.
“We have finally gained some of the rights that everyone else has, but the current administration could make those disappear with the flick of a pen. That is why it is so crucial to get involved now and build up the Lavender Caucus so we can fight back on the issues that are so important ,” says Bacon.
Our union has developed a Member Leadership Development Program (MLDP) specifically to help build the Lavender Caucus, and this is a great way to get further involved in our union. The program is eight weeks long and runs from August 19 through October 10, 2019, including a great deal of training and full time work organizing to connect with other union members on our key issues.