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Gay dollars, labor and boycotts [3 December, 2008]

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The gay dollar has never been stronger.  The passage of the anti-same-sex-marriage initiative Proposition 8 brought protests across the country.  Subsequently, gay activists have released the names of prominent businesspeople who donated to the ballot measure, and called for economic boycotts of their corporations.

Such initiatives, while part of gay history, also prompt new questions.  What role do boycotts play when many corporations now woo well-off gay consumers, boast of “gay-friendly” policies and sometimes have gays and lesbians at the helm? What do boycotts say about the connection between gays and labor unions, traditionally among the organizations that call for such boycotts?

The city of Evanston saw the first of recent boycotts in Illinois November 22 when picketers gathered outside the Century Theater.  They urged theatergoers not to patronize the business because Alan Stock, CEO of Cinemark, the corporation that owns Century, gave a personal contribution of $9,999 to support Proposition 8.

Gay groups in California have been calling for economic boycotts since the summer.  Among the most prominent of these calls is the one about the Manchester Hyatt in San Diego.  The hotel is owned by Doug Manchester, but operated by Global Hyatt Corporation.  It was revealed that Manchester donated $125,000 to Proposition 8.

In response, Local 30, the San Diego chapter of UNITE HERE, joined a gay group, Californians Against Hate, to demand that Global Hyatt sever its connection with the Manchester Hyatt.  UNITE HERE is a union born of the 2004 merger between the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and HERE (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union).  According to Cleve Jones, a gay organizer with the union, UNITE HERE has had its eyes on this particular hotel since 2006, when the hotel’s non-unionized workers protested unfair work practices.

Local 30’s political director, Dan Rottenstreich, said that Proposition 8 became the basis for an “unprecedented coalition” between labor and gay organizing.  A press release regarding a November 22 protest outside the hotel said that, “Organizers are expected to call for major demonstrations in front of Hyatt hotels throughout the nation.”

But will the Hyatt protest translate the same way across the country and in Chicago, where the hotel has a reputation for its support of the gay community?  After all, the Hyatt Regency, 151 E. Wacker, was the 2008 host of International Mr. Leather.

In 1977, the activist Harvey Milk led a boycott against Coors Brewing Company for the company’s anti-gay policies.  Ironically, a current biopic of the gay activist is being released at Cinemark theaters (and at other chains).  Both the film’s director (Gus Van Sant) and screenwriter (Dustin Lance Black) are gay.

But it’s not just the growing presence of out gays and lesbians (and their gatherings) that highlights the complexities of, and differences in, economic boycotts today.  The International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association estimates that gay and lesbian customers spend $55 billion per year in North America for ‘leisure and hospitality services,’ according to one report.

So it makes sense to ask gay consumers to withhold their dollars from anti-gay hotel owners like Doug Manchester.  But will the alliance between labor and gay organizing last beyond Manchester and Proposition 8?  In Chicago, one such alliance failed to get the desired result.  In 2004, the Great Lakes Bears invited its members to book rooms at the Congress Hotel, 520 S. Michigan, for its annual conference.  Queer to the Left (QTL) , a now-defunct group, asked the Bears not to patronize the Congress because its workers were on strike.  The Bears did not heed the call.  [Note: This reporter was, at the time, a member of QTL] .

This certainly did not reflect upon individual Bears but it does beg the question: Given a choice between their interests as gay people and their interests as workers, which side will gays and lesbians choose?

Furthermore, the position of some unions on the issue of gay marriage seems to contradict the basic premise of union organizing: to ensure fair wages and economic parity for all workers, regardless of individual factors like marital status.  According to Jones, UNITE HERE “reject[s] the compromise of domestic partnerships [and is] in favor of full marriage equality.” Yet, many gay (and straight) workers might prefer the flexibility of domestic partnerships over marriage.  There is no widespread consensus on gay marriage within the gay community.

Still, there are important pro-gay policies echoed in the day-to-day workings of UNITE HERE or Pride at Work (PAW), the LGBT constituency group of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest federation of unions in the United States.  Both UNITE HERE and PAW supported a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act; PAW also advocates for domestic partnerships on its Web site even as it presses for marriage equality.  Local 2, the San Francisco chapter of UNITE HERE, “started a Health and Welfare fund for member hotel workers suffering from HIV and AIDS” in 1989.

Finally, are economic boycotts effective?  Eric Stanley, a queer organizer with the prison-abolition group Critical Resistance, says that “the trouble with an economic boycott as a way of working change is that it also argues that everything is ‘fine’ when not in a time of boycott.” For Stanley, economic boycotts “uphold the free market myth of capitalism in ‘non-boycott’ times.” In other words, boycotts don’t challenge the systemic inequality that turns some gays into rich consumers and others into ill-paid hotel workers.  But Stanley also acknowledges that economic boycotts, as in the case of South Africa, can be a way to put specific pressure on corporations that support state policies like apartheid.

It seems likely that the gay community will press on with economic boycotts and perhaps even work, however evanescently, with labor organizers (many of whom are also gay).  The power of the gay dollar will continue unabated, regardless of the fact that some of us, gay or straight, have fewer dollars to spend in the first place.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 3 December, 2008.

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