Penn Law’s Wolff on Labor Issues and the Gay Community

Cite this Article
Thomas A. Lambert, Penn Law’s Wolff on Labor Issues and the Gay Community, Truth on the Market (April 05, 2011),

University of Pennsylvania law professor Tobias Wolff says that if you’re gay, you should support expansive collective bargaining rights for labor unions. Writing at the Huffington Post, he recently identified the promotion of labor unions as “one of the most important priorities for our community at this moment,” and he urged gay people “to contribute our voices, our efforts and our resources to the existential struggle that the labor movement is currently waging against the Republican forces seeking to cripple the right of workers to collectively bargain and roll back workplace protections.”

According to Professor Wolff, there are “three basic reasons” why gay people should “be putting feet on the streets and money on the table to support labor.”

He first contends that “labor rights is an LGBT issue” because “LGBT Americans come from the same economic and demographic origins as all Americans.” Presumably he means that since lots of Americans benefit from unions’ expansive collective bargaining rights, and since there’s no reason to believe gay people will be underrepresented among those beneficiaries, solidarity with organized labor should be a priority for gays.

Next, he notes that “labor unions have been showing up for years on the issue of LGBT equality.” As an example, he points to the website of the public employee union AFSCME, which “reiterates AFSCME’s commitment to LGBT equality and offers a clearinghouse of online resources and a link to a sign-up sheet for the AFSCME Pride network.” In light of these sorts of affirmations, he says, support for expansive labor union rights is simply a matter of “reciprocal obligation.”

Finally, he contends that gay people should jump on the pro-labor bandwagon in order to win political favor. “[T]his urgent fight over the future of labor and workers’ rights is where the energy in American politics is today,” he asserts. Although the gays do like to keep up with the latest trends (and how!), Wolff’s argument ultimately appeals to more than just a desire to stay trendy: “We need to be visibly showing up and contributing our efforts, so that our allies in labor, in state legislatures, and in political parties and organizing committees around the country will know that we were there when it mattered.”

I must respectfully disagree with Prof. Wolff.  Support for the rights of organized labor unions should not be, as he says, “one of the highest priorities of the LGBT community today — fully on a par with the effort to secure … relationship rights.”

Is it not self-evident that the elimination of state-sponsored discrimination — bans on gay adoptions, the Defense of Marriage Act’s denial of 1,100 federal benefits to legally wed same-sex couples, denials by states of various rights afforded to married couples, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (which is still in effect), etc. — are way more important to gay people than the right of public sector unions to engage in collective bargaining over pensions and termination provisions?  That the matters are not “fully on a par”?  Not to Prof. Wolff, apparently.

The three reasons he articulates for equating labor union rights with relationship rights are far from convincing.  The first — the fact that “LGBT Americans come from the same economic and demographic origins as all Americans” — proves too much.  If gay people are really representative of all Americans, then some gays — say, public school teachers — benefit from expansive rights for public sector unions, and other gays — say, business executives in high tax brackets — are harmed by them.  To be fair, Wolff does suggest that gay people may be disproportionately impacted by reduced employment benefits because they lack various legal protections affored to others, but doesn’t that suggest that the real problem, the place where gays should focus their energies, is the lack of equal protection?  Moreover, one could make a strong argument that gay people, who have fewer dependents on average than straight people, have less need for lucrative employee benefits.  In any event, Wolff’s initial argument is hardly compelling.

Neither is his second argument.  Surely the fact that a group expresses support for gay equality and offers gay people various resources does not create a “reciprocal obligation” on the part of gay people to support all that group stands for.  Does Wolff think gay people have an obligation:

  • to support Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and Citigroup in their opposition to derivatives regulation? 
  • to support Monsanto’s efforts to avoid regulation of genetically modified organisms and rBST? 
  • to support Aetna’s opposition to various mandates under Obamacare? 
  • to encourage additional financial support for AIG? 
  • to endorse a BP plan to limit liability for oil spills? 
  • to call their congressmen to echo requests by Chevron and Shell to increase offshore oil drilling? 
  • to join Bristol Myers Squibb and GlaxoSmithKline in their efforts to prevent the illegal production of patented AIDS drugs in Africa? 
  • to support AT&T’s proposed merger with T-Mobile? 
  • to back a plan by Waste Management, Inc. to streamline the permitting process for landfills?  

I doubt he would call on gay people to take any of these stances.  But each of the listed companies — Goldman, B of A, Citigroup, Monsanto, Aetna, AIG, BP, Chevron, Shell, Bristol Myers, GSK, AT&T, and Waste Management — is included on the Human Rights Campaign’s list of the “top businesses that support equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees.”  If an expression of support for gay rights and the provision of benefits to gays were enough to create a “reciprocal obligation” to provide support, gay people would have to spend all their time pushing causes!

This brings us to Wolff’s last, undoubtedly most important, argument: that gay people should support organized labor now so that organized labor feels compelled return the favor when the gays have an issue to push.

Here, I depart from Prof. Wolff — and from the herd of independent minds comprising the leadership of the gay community — on a most fundamental level.  At this point in American history, I believe the best way for gay people to make equality gains is via a bottom-up, not a top-down, approach.  Gays should stop running to the government for additional protections from private actors (though they should vigorously oppose state-sponsored discrimination), and should instead concentrate on changing the hearts and minds of their friends and neighbors. 

And guess how you do that?  By being yourself.  By going through your workaday life, being your “best self” and expressing your own beliefs and convictions — religious, political, or otherwise — because they’re yours, not because someone dictated that you must, by virtue of your sexual orientation, hold them.

So, if you’re a gay person and you think collective bargaining by public sector unions is bankrupting state and local governments while fattening the civil service class, go gripe about it to your Republican neighbor over a beer.  In doing so, you’ll be promoting the sort of social change that will ensure real equality for gay people in the future.