Nancy Wohlforth: Uniting the Labor and LGBT Movements

“Since 1979, when the Gay and Lesbian Labor Alliance was formed, Nancy Wohlforth has been working to bring gay issues into the labor movement. Now the organization is called Pride At Work and is a full-fledged constituency group in the AFL-CIO. National cochair Wohlforth and the newly hired executive director, Kipukai Kuali’i, will fight for domestic-partner pension benefits, greater employment protection, and transgender inclusion. They also want gays and lesbians to understand the power and benefit of unions. ‘Frankly, a lot of people still see the union as a bunch of old white boys who want nothing to do with their interests,’ Wohlforth says, ‘clearly that’s not the case.’

-The Advocate on Nancy Wohlforth in the Best and Brightest Activists collection, August 17, 1999.

Looking back to last June, it is startling to see how much the country has seemed to have changed. Last year I wrote a post for this blog introducing the Pride at Work Collection at UMD which I had just finished inventorying. At the time, I saw the collection as a testament of the LGBTQ community’s achievement and a reminder of the struggles it faced. A week after I finished writing the post, the Orlando nightclub shooting rocked the community and the country. Now in 2017, the political landscape seems even more different from pre-Orlando 2016. In this context, I wanted to highlight something both relevant and inspiring about the collection. Nancy Wohlforth, whose speeches and other materials are held in the Pride at Work Collection, is such a person.

“There’s a Lesbian in Charge of Local 3”: Nancy Becomes a Labor Leader

According to a story relayed in New York’s Gay City News, Nancy has been involved in activism since she was a teenager. In their spotlight of her, when she was elected to the AFL-CIO’s executive board, they relay a story that when she was 16, she went to Alabama to register black voters. Wohlforth’s career as an advocate and labor leader really took off in the late 1970’s and 80’s.

To address changes developing in the workforce, concerned members of OPEIU Local 3 formed a caucus within the union called “A Growing Concern,” which focused on addressing issues for women and the LGBTQ community. Throughout the 1980’s, the caucus was able to win more and more seats in elections and Nancy Wohlforth eventually was elected to the highest paid position in the union, senior business representative. This transformation helped change the face of the union which helped the union fight off stereotypical portrayals of unions. Wohlforth relates such a case in Miriam Frank’s 2014 book Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America where she describes how Local 3 was working with workers at a small tech company that tried to scare its employees with ”‘old union-busting films from the 1970’s with the brass of the AFL-CIO, the old bureaucracy…‘they [the employees] said to the bosses, ‘Do you know that there’s a lesbian in charge of Local 3? Have you even heard of the Office and Professional Employees?’ We won that shop.’”

Nancy on Hate Crimes

The Pride At Work (P@W) Collection features the text and drafts of speeches Nancy delivered all over the world from San Francisco to Berlin at conferences, conventions, and at the United Nations. Nancy consistently describes a connection between, human and civil rights, LGBTQ rights, and the labor movement. Nancy has described the LGBTQ movement and the labor movement as intrinsically linked stating: “The trade union movement is a natural ally of the LGBT community.” Nancy saw that through collective bargaining via labor unions, the LGBTQ community could work towards ensuring their human and civil rights.

In a speech from a hate crimes panel at the 1999 AFL-CIO Convention, Nancy focuses on the need for the AFL-CIO constituency groups to form coalitions and work towards civil protections against hate crimes:

“From the murders of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming to the brutal murder of James Byrd, an African American in Texas, to the burnings of synagogues in Sacramento, to the shooting up of a Jewish day care in Los Angeles, to the shooting of a postal worker–Joseph Ilteo–because he was Filipino, hate crimes are on the rise…. Without federal legislation, we have no way to accurately track hate crimes. We must educate in our communities and in our unions, that all these hate crimes are linked and the targets of those groups that perpetuate the ideology of hate are always the same: People of Color, Jewish People, and lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people. The latest murderer, Buford Furrow, subscribed to the philosophy of a neo-Nazi group that in their own words–sets out to ‘kill Jews, non-whites and homosexuals.’”

Nancy ended her speech with a call to action:

“We must mobilize masses of people in the streets, into the state legislatures and into all our municipal government bodies. Our message must be loud and clear: No More Hate In Our Country and that an injury to one is an injury to all!”

It seems that in 2017, these words may be just now really reaching the country.


Benjamin Bradley is a second year MLIS student in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. He works in the Labor Collections at UMD’s Special Collections and University Archives.

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