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Some 300 activists from 25 countries all over the world are expected at the Workers Out! World Conference. Related Gully Arts Coverage:

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Gay Labor Goes Global in Australia

AUGUST 13, 2002. Some 300 gay labor activists from 25 countries are expected to attend the Workers Out! World Conference of Lesbian and Gay Trade Unionists in Sydney, Australia at the end of October, just prior to the Gay Games 2002. The Gully recently spoke with Australian Ken Davis, one of the conference organizers.

The Gully: What do you hope to accomplish at the Workers Out! World Conference?

Ken Davis: We'll be discussing ways to integrate defense of lgbt rights into the human rights programs of national and international trade union structures — the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions adopted a resolution opposing discrimination on grounds of sexuality in 2000 — and how to gain international representation.

Another priority is implementing workplace policies on HIV and other chronic diseases, along with enabling access to anti-retroviral medicines. In particular, we're pressuring leading transnational employers to buy generic anti-HIV drugs for their employees in the Pacific, Latin America, Africa and Asia.

The Workers Out! Conference continues work begun at the 1998 Trade Unions, Homosexuality and Work Conference held prior to the Gay Games in Amsterdam. This Sydney conference is supported by, and endorsed by a number of national and international union federations, including the Australia Council of Trade Unions (1.8 million members), the Aotearoa/New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, the Canadian Labor Congress (2.5 million members), Public Services International (20 million members), the International Federation of Journalists, the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers' Federation, ILGA (the International Lesbian and Gay Association), Pride At Work in the US, and several European trade unions.

How did you become involved in Workers Out! and in organizing gay workers?

I came out during Gay Pride Week in 1973 when I was 16 and still in school. It wasn't such a big deal because there was a great deal of radical activity at the time in schools.

I've been a gay liberation activist since then. My first activities were in anti-psychiatry "zaps," and the long fight for repeal of the anti-homosexual laws. Most of the activists with me were socialists in various groups. Since 1977, I've been active in the postal workers, government workers, and community services workers unions.

For the last several years I've worked for the overseas aid agency of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. Our projects in southern Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific, Viet Nam and Cambodia train workers in HIV and occupational health, gender equality and trade union development, among other things.

How developed is gay labor organizing in Australia?

Already at the time of Sydney's first Gay Mardi Gras [pride celebration] in 1978, there were just beginning to be groups of gay and lesbian trade unionists, including postal workers (such as myself at the time), teachers, nurses, railway workers, and public sector workers. In 1978, the first national Gay and Lesbian Trade Unionists Group (GayTUG) was formed.

Since then, there have been formal and informal lesbian and gay caucuses in unions of nurses, teachers, and service, public sector, rail, airlines, academic and communications workers.

Gradually groups also formed to organize lesbian and gay activists across unions. Now in Sydney, apart from the Workers Out! conference committee, there is the annual organizing for trade union participation in the Gay Mardi Gras parade. In Melbourne, the group UNITE, based at the Victorian Trades Hall, brings together queers from a range of unions.

What has your experience been as an "out" gay union member and organizer?

In the three unions where I've been an active member, and in my work for the union movement, I've never faced discrimination. In all my work situations there have been significant numbers of openly lesbian or gay colleagues. Being out as lesbian, gay, transgender or HIV+ is obviously easier in some work situations than others. Urban white collar workers aren't immune from discrimination, but it may be tougher for workers in rural and outer-urban areas, in some industrial sectors, and for those employed by church-run education, health and welfare services.

What about out lesbian organizers and transgendered people?

Currently, lesbian trade union activists are more prominent than gay male activists, not only in white collar or "traditionally female" sectors like nursing, teaching and community services, but also in industrial sectors, like the meat industry, and manufacturing.

For lesbian trade unionists, the fight for increased power for women within the labor movement, and the struggle against continuing inequalities in the gendered division of labor, often take precedence over sexuality-specific struggles. Childcare, parental leave and lower pay in "women's jobs" are key issues for them, like for other working women. Female organizers also face obstacles from sexist comrades and male-dominated committees.

The experiences of transgendered people vary a lot, though some trade unions have taken steps to ensure that transgendered people are integrated into the workplace. Transsexual Maori Labor parliamentarian, Georgina Beyers, from Aotearoa/New Zealand will speak at the Workers Out! Conference opening.

Do Australia's big unions have sexual identity anti-discrimination policies?

The first unions to respond to anti-gay persecution in the early 1970s were the builders, maritime and teaching unions. In the mid-1970s, and early 1980s, major trade unions and regional labor councils adopted positions against discrimination, and supported removal of state laws against homosexuality. Now all states in Australia have some form of anti-discrimination provision.

In 1984, gay union activists and their allies led several trade unions to adopt policies on HIV with regards to occupational health, pensions, discrimination and prevention education. Many of the community organizations that currently provide support for people with HIV in Australia came out of efforts by trade union members in particular workplaces to provide support for seriously ill colleagues.

Some of the policies about sexual identity and HIV lapsed after many Australian unions merged in the 80s and 90s. They were replaced by more general anti-discrimination and occupational health policies at national union or federation level. In general, the Australian union movement remains strongly committed to opposing discrimination. Various Australian unions support awarding benefits to same sex partners, and there is an ongoing fight to ensure full recognition of same sex partners in all superannuation schemes.

However, there are a few unions — even some with large numbers of gay members, such as retail — whose leaders (from a right-wing faction of the Labor Party) sometimes support conservative social agendas, for example opposing access by lesbians to reproductive technologies.

Are any top union officials out?

A long while ago, the national general secretary of the teachers union came out, and now it would be unusual for there to be any public reaction if a trade union leader were to come out. The leaders of the two largest unions in New South Wales are lesbians; they are neither public nor closeted. The president of the journalists' union is an out lesbian. Although not officially a union, nor particularly progressive, the national doctors' organisation is led by an open lesbian.

Sharan Burrow, the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (the second woman to hold that position), and president of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions Asia-Pacific region, has taken strong public positions in favor of lesbian and gay rights.

How is Australia's labor movement, including gay union groups, responding to the anti-immigrant fever that seems to be sweeping the country?

As with some European countries, conservative parties in Australia have used racism and xenophobia to win populist electoral support. They argue that migrants, refugees and trade unions are responsible for unemployment, despite record profits for business in Australia.

Immigration and racism have become a central issue for unions since the majority of the industrial working class in Australia live in homes where English is not the only spoken language. In Sydney, Chinese is the second most common language, Arabic is third.

Unions are campaigning to free the refugees in detention, mostly Kurds, Palestinians, Iraqis, Iranians and Afghanis. We are also working against anti-Muslim, anti-Arab racism, and racism in general in the working class, and fighting against Australian support for President Bush's threats of war against Iraq, and against Israel's war against the Palestinians. The main gay and lesbian organizations haven't really played any role.

The union movement also supported the Gay and Lesbian Immigration Task Force, which in 1985 won recognition for same sex partners in applications for Australian residency from the (then) Labor government.

Have gay labor activists worked with other gay activists, or with activists from other minorities?

In Sydney, the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby has collaborated in valuable research on workplace discrimination, and the Workers Out! Conference is getting support from community-based AIDS organizations. Many of the Workers Out! organizers are active in other lesbian and gay groups.

In many respects, lesbian and gay business people are better organized than workers, whose interests within the lgbt community are downplayed. Gay supporters of the anti-trade union political parties are as prominent as the lgbt groups in Labor or the Greens. Employees of lesbian and gay small businesses and community services are poorly organized. I think discussion of class is avoided by the lgbt community so it can project itself as an opulent market niche.

Last year, the Australian Council of Trade Unions held the first national conference of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander trade unionists, which was a very emotional event for all participants. Exclusion of indigenous people from education and employment is a major issue for the trade union movement, and though there have been indigenous rights committees within the trade unions for decades, there hasn't been much progress.

Alongside the Workers Out! Conference, in the lead up to the Sydney 2002 Gay Games, indigenous workshops will be featured in the Health In Difference Conference. There is also a First Cultures Conference which will have strong participation from around Australia, from Aotearoa/New Zealand and the Pacific.

Workers Out! will be held in downtown Sydney, 31 October- 2 November 2002, leading up to the 2002 Gay Games.

Related links:

For the Workers Out! Conference official site.

For First Cultures Conference: Race, Sexuality and Identity, a global conference for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender indigenous peoples.

For the official site of the Sydney 2002 Gay Games .

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

For Complete Coverage Asia/South Pacific

For Complete Coverage Race/Class

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