For LGBT workers at steel mills, it hasn't gotten better. But there's hope.
Even with the waves of progress in America on issues such as same-sex marriage and employment non-discrimination laws from state-to-state, progress seems to have missed steelworkers at plants across the country, including in Chicago's backyard. They endure on-the-job harassment, sexual assault, physical threats, violent attacks and can be fired at any time just because of who they arebecause Indiana doesn't protect LGBT workers.
But at an upcoming international steelworkers' union convention Aug. 11 in Las Vegas, that could all change with an affirmative vote on an LGBT employment protection resolution.
The plight of the steelworkers was brought to light in a recent book, Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Steelworkers, written by scholar and lecturer Anne Balay. The former instructor at Indiana University Northwest told Windy City Times that, following the release of her book earlier this spring, many of the workers in Gary, Ind., and elsewhere in that state decided they would approach their local union bosses and take action.
"One of them went to their local [union] steward, and the local president, and then to a civil rights coordinator and a bunch of meetings ... and the language of their contract went through [with protections]," Balay said. "And it got everyone else excited ... there seems to be a positive feeling that once the resolution gets to the convention that it'll get wide support."
Balay opted to be a partner in that very process, even drafting a sample resolution for workers and union figureheads to tweak and formalize into procedural language, given her years and thorough knowledge of the broader issue gained through her original research and countless hours of interviews with individual steelworkers.
Some of those factory employees and leaders, including straight ally Paul Kaczocha of northwest Indiana, are heartened and hopeful with the progress they've already seen. Kaczocha's local, based out of the ArclorMittal plant in Burns Harbor, Indiana, voted almost unanimously in favor of protecting their LGBT steelworkers.
"The thing is that people have so many relatives, children, who have been touched by LGBT discrimination and they're much more open about this than they were 20 years ago, let alone 40 years ago when I was hired into my shop," said Kaczocha, a past president of his local, who says he will retire soon. "Mills can be a brutal place to work. If you show any weaknesses, people exploit them. If someone was openly gay or lesbian, they probably did get harassed by people over the years."
Kaczocha said the broader governing body, United Steelworkers International, would likely not shy away from the issue at the Aug. 11 meeting, where many policies and procedures are revisited during a constitutional convention.
Indeed, the issue isn't confined to northwest Indiana mills and, in fact, extends to unions nationally.
In her recently released book, Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America, New York University professor Miriam Frank documented various LGBT labor issues that have impacted the community's civil rights and economic empowerment. Frank said that organized labor has had an active role in helping secure the recent wave of wins for equal marriage in America, and that "right away" is barely soon enough for workers to get the protection they truly deserve.
"Roadblocks of prejudice and ignorance will only fall if USW commits to mobilizing all straight allies within the union," Frank said, adding that they must support "Pro-active education about sexual diversity within the workforce" and "immediate responses to complaints of discrimination and harassment."