Queer Labor article of interest (fwd)

Chegitz Guevara mluziett at shrike.depaul.edu
Wed Feb 14 08:36:06 MST 1996


Marc, "the Chegitz," Luzietti
personal homepage: http://shrike.depaul.edu/~mluziett
political homepage: http://shrike.depaul.edu/~mluziett/chegitz.html

- ------------------------
Via Workers World Service
Reprinted from the June 29, 1995, issue of Workers World
newspaper
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EARLY HEROES: GAY TRADE UNIONISTS OF THE 30'S

By Shelley Ettinger

In his first book, "Coming Out Under Fire: the History of Gay Men
and Women in World War II," historian Allan Berube examined one
group of lesbian and gay workers--those in the armed forces in
the 1940s. In current research for another book, he focuses on
another set of gay workers in the days before Stonewall--members
of the Marine Cooks & Stewards Union in the 1930s, 1940s and
1950s.

The first book led to research for a  second. Several World War
II veterans who had also belonged to the MC&S piqued Berube's
interest in the maritime union.

One man told Berube that he was kicked out of the Navy for being
gay. Berube says: "He was told by his officer, 'The only people
who will take you in now are the Marine Cooks & Stewards Union.'
So he went over and signed up!

"That got me interested in this union."

Until the early 1950s, the MC&S represented workers at the bottom
rung of the West Coast maritime industry. "They basically
organized the 'hotel' workers on the big passenger liners, and
the service personnel on the smaller freighters and tankers. The
people who cooked the meals, cleaned, made the beds.

"They did the kind of traditional women's work on the ship,"
Berube explains. "They did the housecleaning and serving.

"And they were stereotyped as 'queer,' particularly the waiters
and the room stewards and the hairdressers. And of course, many
of them were gay."

Under the leadership of these gay workers and their straight
brothers--many of them communists--the MC&S would flower into a
great fighting union, committed to fighting both racism and gay
oppression.

Eventually, the union would be destroyed in the witch hunts of
the McCarthy era. But its slogan, developed in the heady days of
the 1930s, still resonates for anyone committed to the struggle
today:

"No red baiting! No race baiting! No queen baiting!"

As he lifts the lid off the hidden history of this union, Berube
is also unearthing some inspiring lessons about how to build
unity. On June 19, he talked with Workers World about the story
of the MC&S.

FROM JINGOISM TO SOLIDARITY

The union was first organized in 1901. Initially, it was not at
all progressive.

Berube says the union was "formed in order to protect white men's
jobs from Asian workers. They were explicitly anti-Asian. That's
why they formed--to protect white jobs from being replaced by
lower-paid Chinese, Filipino and Japanese seamen."

But all that changed starting in 1934, when, Berube says, "a lot
of left wingers came into the union. They had the great West
Coast maritime strike in 1934. The union was an important part of
that.

"And [the MC&S] became racially integrated at that point. They
dedicated themselves to racial equality.

"[There was] a big influx of left-wing seamen, including members
of the Communist Party, into the union at that point. And some of
the communists and some of the men of color as well as the white
men were gay."

The MC&S and its sister union, the International Longshore and
Warehouse Union, were "the most left-wing and most multi-racial
unions in the maritime waterfront unions on the West Coast."

Thus began the period of the union's flourishing.

New members poured in--primarily African Americans, Filipinos,
Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiians. The union dedicated itself to
building solidarity.

The MC&S practiced affirmative action long before the phrase
existed. "In 1949 at their convention they decided that
leadership had to reflect the changing membership, which was
mostly men of color," Berube says. Then they "did things to make
it happen."

The barrier against women workers on the ships remained in place
for a long time, however. By the late 1940s the union had
succeeded in winning some jobs for women. Still, it remained
overwhelmingly male.

It was no secret that many of these maritime men were gay. Union
members--even straight workers--came to refer to themselves as
"queens."

In the course of the struggles of the 1930s it became clear that
attempts at gay baiting would have to be met head-on.

BUILDING UNITY

The union's unity slogan grew out of its members' understanding
of the need for unyielding solidarity.

"The slogan was developed by some of the members in the late
1930s to respond to the baiting," Berube says.

"And instead of responding by saying, 'We don't have communists'
or 'We don't like communists' or 'We don't have queers, we don't
like queers'--instead of responding in any of these ways, they
responded by targeting the baiting as divisive.

"One of the things some of the people in the union really made
clear to me is that when you're doing the right thing you're
going to have a fight on your hands. And by surrendering the
ground you already have in order to kind of postpone the fight
doesn't mean you're not going to have the fight.

"So you might as well fight where you are."

The union newspaper, The Voice, reflected this approach. In the
graphics, Berube says, you can see "this vision of solidarity ...
a kind of an affectionate camaraderie, and multi-racial." In the
stories, "they would describe the range of people in their
union." The sense was that these men of various nationalities
"were the workers who built this union and, dammit, they were
going to benefit from it."

Gay men--including one couple, Frank and Steve--were among the
leading militants. One of them, who made no secret of his
gayness, was a vice president of the California CIO in the 1930s.

It would be another 20 years before an organized gay movement
emerged. But these openly gay men "were part of the labor
movement," Berube points out.

"They were very political, very politically conscious, very aware
of struggle, and very aware that change had to come about through
struggle and through solidarity. This was just in their blood.
That came from their working-class lives and situations and the
politics that grew out of that.

"So that they really conceived of their being queens or queers or
gay in that context. It wasn't a separate thing. A lot of the men
told me that they didn't know anybody who was gay outside of the
maritime trades. That was their world view."

QUEENS IN THE LABOR MOVEMENT

"When you look at it in terms of working-class politics," Berube
says, "that's gay politics. It was a movement that was a labor
union movement, left-wing, and they found a way to be
queens--that was their word--to be a part of that and improve
their lives in political ways through a militant, left-wing labor
movement."

Were they explicitly fighting for gay rights? Berube explains
that they didn't have "gay politics" in the contemporary sense,
"but they're not in the closet. And they're thinking politically
and they're improving the lives of queens.

"They're just not separating it from these other struggles, which
are struggles, as they put it in those days, for racial equality
and international working-class solidarity. Which of course got
them into deep trouble by the [witch hunts of the] late 1940s.

"I mean, a queer, racially integrated union working for racial
equality. Left-wing politics, many communists. When the
government and the nation's turning to the right [came] in the
late 1940s, there was no hope for them.

"And one of the stories I'm trying to tell in my book is not why
were they defeated--but how were they able to last so long?"

The Marine Cooks & Stewards Union was crushed, along with dozens
of other unions around the country, in the anti-communist witch
hunt of the post-war years. In 1950 it was kicked out of the CIO,
and within a year the government had moved in.

Berube says: "They used basically red baiting. And then within
that there was lots of race baiting. In other words, the African
American members of the union were targeted in the red-baiting
drives disproportionately to their numbers in the union, and in
many of the government hearings they would ask questions about,
'Are you queer? Are you homosexual?'

"But explicitly it was anti-communist." Union militants were
"screened off the ships, one by one."

Efforts to defend the union came primarily from the African
American community. But the McCarthy steamroller was too much.

At the same time the Communist Party leadership couldn't stand up
to the pressure. The government imprisoned the party's top
leaders. Those who remained were harassed and threatened
constantly.

What was left of the leadership abandoned many communist
principles. Among the backward steps the Communist Party made was
to adopt an anti-gay policy, kicking out gay members.

As the militants from the MC&S could have told them, this didn't
stop the anti-communist witch hunt. It was a bad decision. It
weakened a union that had been built with strong gay and
communist leadership.

The valiant union of maritime service workers went under. But its
greatest achievement--unity--lives again wherever workers and
oppressed people join together to fight for their rights.

Now, 40 years after the MC&S's demise, most communist and
socialist groups do support the gay liberation struggle. And the
labor movement is coming back on board.

WE DID IT BEFORE. WE CAN DO IT AGAIN

Berube has presented a slide show on his research to a number of
union gatherings in recent months. His audiences are
multinational, gay and straight.

"For people who are not gay, it's their history--the history of
heterosexual men and women who developed working relationships
with other union members who they knew were gay.

"So this is not just gay history. It's a history of alliances."

Berube concludes: "The inspiration for me--and this is what some
of the men in the union told me--is this: 'We did it already.
It's not like we just could do it. We did it. It's real.

"'And that means it's possible, because we did it.'"

[Editor's note: Allan Berube is looking for surviving members of
the MC&S to interview. If you were a member, please contact WW;
we will forward your name to him.]


                              -30-

(Copyright Workers World Service: Permission to reprint granted
if source is cited. For more information contact Workers World,
55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011; via e-mail: ww at wwp.blythe.org. For
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