Equality, Decent Work and Economic Justice for All

Interview with LGBTQI* activist and unionist Cleve Jones from San Francisco, USA
Laura Jäger
Unite Here uionist protesting for LGBTQI* rights
© Cleve Jones

Cleve Jones joined the gay liberation movement in the early 1970s and co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Since 2007 he has been working for UNITE HERE. The labor union represents almost 300.000 workers across the United States and Canada i.a. in the hotel, food service, laundry, transportation and airport industries. UNITE HERE has been a pioneer in protecting LGBTQI* workers since the 1980s. In the following interview, Cleve Jones shares what problems LGBTQI* employees are facing and how the union fights for their equal rights.

Tourism Watch: UNITE HERE was the first union to ratify a comprehensive statement in support of civil and economic rights for LGBTQI* people. Why was this an important step for your union?

Cleve Jones: Cleaning staff in big hotel chains and food service workers are the backbone of our union. Our members are very diverse - coming from almost every country of the world. The majority are women, people of colour and immigrants. Therefore, many of them struggle with widespread discrimination, harassment and violence at work. If workers in addition are part of the LGBTQI* community, this adds another layer of complexity when fighting for their rights to decent work and freedom from discrimination. For us as a union, it is essential to demonstrate that we are open for everyone regardless of their skin colour, origin, gender identity or sexual orientation. In the end, we are all united in our struggle for decent work, economic justice and equality. 

Tourism Watch: What kind of discrimination do LGBTQI* workers face in the food and hospitality services industry?

Cleve Jones: In the U.S., there is no general legal protection from discrimination for LGBTQI* people at the workplace. How vulnerable they are to discrimination varies with the jurisdiction of the state they work in. In California, LGBTQI* workers have been protected by law for many years now. In states with a less tolerant political climate, such as Louisiana, Georgia, or Texas, it is an entirely different story. Here, it is perfectly legal to fire someone or to deny them a promotion simply for being queer or trans, for example.

Many LGBTQI* members report being verbally and emotionally - in some cases even sexually - harassed or abused because of who they love and/or express their gender. We have heard about employers refusing to acknowledge trans workers’ gender identity, constantly addressing them with the wrong name and/or pronoun or forbidding them to use bath or changing rooms consistent with their affirmed genders. In too many cases, partners of gay and lesbian members are denied health benefits altogether or at least not covered at the same level as heterosexual married spouses. Often times, their contracts and the respective health benefits do not cover HIV treatment - neither for workers nor their spouses.

Tourism Watch: How does UNITE HERE tackle these issues?

Cleve Jones: Negotiating contracts with hotel chains and food service companies for better working conditions for all staff is our bread and butter. We insert LGBTQI* social safeguards in union contracts that protect workers from discrimination - even in places where no such protections exist in the law. If necessary, we go on strike - our strongest and most effective means to make use of our collective bargaining power.

Tourism Watch: Your union managed to build powerful coalitions between the LGBTQI* community and unions in your quest for fair and equal treatment of all individuals. How so?

Cleve Jones: By participating in more than 32 pride celebrations this year alone, we increase our visibility as a union amongst the LGBTQI* community. On political issues, we have worked shoulder to shoulder with LGBTQI* activists. In California, we successfully fought Proposition 8, which set out to ban same-sex marriage. One of its largest supporters, Doug Manchester, owned the Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Diego. Union workers and LGBTQI* people organized strikes, boycotts and media campaigns. In the end, the Proposition did not pass and Manchester had to sell his hotel. We also stand in international solidarity. When the Sultan of Brunei forbade homosexual acts under penalty of death, we joined the call to boycott all Brunei-owned Dorchester luxury hotels. Together with the LGBTQI* community we protested in front of Brunei’s embassy and in front of the Dorchester’s in the US.

Last but not least, we run a multimedia campaign that encourages LGBTQI* travelers to use their power as consumers. Afterall, they spend more than 200 Billion US Dollars annually. We urge members of the LGBTQI* community to “Sleep With The Right People” by honoring picket lines, respecting boycotts at various hotels across North America, and whenever possible patronizing unionized hotels when traveling.

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