- Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America by Miriam Frank
Miriam Frank's Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America takes into consideration over one hundred oral histories and interviews as well as her archival work on company reports and newspaper articles in order to uncover the traces of queer organizing in the American labor movement from the 1960s to the present. Both scope and attention to detail reveal the complexities and uniqueness of and personal investment in this project, which was more than twenty years in the making. The book addresses the role that a particular salience of sexuality plays in the workplaces mentioned in the book in regard to the purpose, operation, and problems of the union movement. Although one might expect overlaps between LGBT histories and US labor union histories, these two strands rarely intersect. Rather, the main focus of the labor movement, [End Page 163] as Frank explains, "was always an economic one: to organize workers in all industries and thus better the material lives of all Americans" (7). By contrast, LGBT activists favored "freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender expression" (7), civil rights that were taken for granted by the majority of their co-workers. Out in the Union is an attempt to weave these two histories together, and it does so in a way that provides an incredibly rich archive for historians, social scientists, political scientists, and feminist and sexuality studies scholars and is also accessible for a broader audience.
The book is divided into three parts. Part 1, "Coming Out," elaborates on the challenges queer workers faced on the job and in their unions when out, details cases of discrimination, and explores the reasons for coming out in certain settings or at particular times. Part 2, "Coalition Politics," investigates the relationships between queer activists and other civil rights actors and movements. In this section, Frank describes how "queer lives were written into the contract[s]" (108), in other words, how queer workers have affected union locals and their primary work of organizing and bargaining contract provisions such as domestic partner benefits. These benefits came to be seen as positive for both gay and straight workers while being relatively cost-efficient for the companies. Part 3, "Conflict and Transformation," focuses on queer activism and labor unions, particularly as far as gay-owned businesses in San Francisco and AIDS clinics are concerned. The book's final pages engage with the tensions that arise among deeply committed AIDS workers who are caught in a crisis and yet feel that their needs are not being addressed.
While Out in the Union is attuned to local and regional specificities, it cannot be so for every state and the various labor sectors and industries. Frank herself identifies, for example, the absence of midwestern workers from the "steel, oil, mining, or manufacturing centers of the heartland" (13) as one of the gaps of her research. Furthermore, Texas and Las Vegas are not represented. These shortcomings aside, Frank's book is a true treasure for those of us who get excited by these historical narratives about the inspirational work of queer individuals and labor unions. [End Page 164]