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Davich: Local author’s book prompts national union’s resolution for gays

Anne Balay | Jerry Davich~Sun-Times Media

Anne Balay | Jerry Davich~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 26, 2014 12:51PM



Anne Balay has never worked in a steel mill, though she completely understands what it’s like to do so as a gay steelworker.

The 50-year-old former English professor from Miller, a lesbian who came out years ago, wrote a book about such experiences, especially in Northwest Indiana mills. It’s titled, “Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers,” released in April by University of North Carolina Press.

“It explains how and why basic steel mills are inhospitable, even dangerous to queers, and demonstrate that we can’t understand what it means to be GLBT without including working-class, blue-collar voices and stories,” the book states.

Their personal stories had similar themes of abuse, rapes and profound fearfulness inside our region’s steel mills. It’s no secret that mills are dangerous places, but they’re even more dangerous for this visible yet invisible demographic of workers.

Earlier this month, those eye-opening stories prompted United Steelworkers International to pass a long-overdue resolution declaring workplace protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered steelworkers. It did so at its annual national convention in Las Vegas, which allows modifications to policies and acts as a constitutional convention for major changes.

“Delegates overwhelmingly approved adding gender identity to classifications, such as race, creed and age, cited specifically in the union constitution for protection against harassment,” said Tom Hargrove, president of USW Local 1010, Indiana Harbor East. “Members stood, cheered and applauded as Leo Gerard shouted, ‘We are all human beings in this union and, as long as I am president, we will not tolerate any form of discrimination against any human being for any reason.’”

This is something that even the state of Indiana fails to do for such employees, even though steel mills have been notoriously harsh environments for GLBT workers.

“My book ended by proving there were GLBT people out there being discriminated against by both the mills and their union. It argued that this could be changed, and should be changed. With that evidence, the union went ahead and did the right thing.

The measures are very exciting,” said Balay, a single mother of two daughters.

Balay started the long process by submitting a resolution proposal for USW Local 6787 out of Burns Harbor. She compiled a list of protections from GLBT steelworkers in her book and others in the gay community.

“That was my main input,” she told me.

That resolution was passed by 6787, in modified form, and it was shared with other USW locals across the country, which also passed it.

“So when it came up at the convention in Vegas, it had pretty broad support,” she said. “The national climate has changed significantly, so they wanted to support it, they just needed to believe there would be rank and file support to back them up. We were able to demonstrate that.”

The resolution, which passed in its entirety, stated in part: “Whereas, the United Steelworkers is and has always been a union for all. We do not discriminate nor will we condone discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, ancestry, national origin, citizenship, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or any other legally protected grounds.

“And, whereas sexual orientation and gender identity or expression must cease to be a lawful basis of discrimination in employment or in any other area of public life.”

“Therefore, be it resolved that: We will actively discourage members from engaging in discrimination and harassment of equality-seeking individuals or groups in the workplace and in union activities, and will not use disciplinary procedures to shield illegal discriminatory conduct.

“And, we support non-discrimination in both employment legislation and in the workplace and support legislative and collective bargaining initiatives that include sexual orientation and gender identity protections to guard workers from discrimination on the job.”

The resolution surprised even the union’s most skeptical critics, though it still remains to be seen if its proactive words will translate into protective actions for GLBT workers. Especially in this region, which prides itself on its smokestack skyline identity and macho-man steelworker image.

“That’s where rubber meets the road, otherwise it’s just a bunch of legalese (expletive),” said Thomas L., a gay steelworker who lives in Porter County.

Balay agrees: “The constitution doesn’t matter if protections don’t appear in the local collective bargaining contracts and the individual workplaces, protecting workers.”

Exactly how that will work at each union local is not yet known, though Balay is ever hopeful for positive, protective change.

“What matters is that it’s policy. When people go to negotiate contracts, they need to have these conversations now because of the resolution,” she added.

An ArcelorMittal spokeswoman said the company applauds the USW’s efforts “to further protect LGBT workers at steel mills across the country.”

There are loose strings to tie up, of course. For example, the resolution also called for a person in each district to be trained in GLBT mediation, so those workers would have a sympathetic place to file complaints. But who will be trained, and how? Who will pay, and when? There are many more questions. Answers are at least possible now.

The white-hot issue of gay rights has been splashed across our slowly-evolving society more than ever, from the contentious same-sex marriage bill to the college football player who came out as the first openly gay NFL player.

Balay’s life-changing book is a compelling 192-page study exploring how sexuality and gender overlap in the sprawling steel mills of Northwest Indiana. Before writing it, she never believed that unions purposely discriminated against gays in the workplace.

However, because no one stepped forward to publicly, and openly, complain about conditions in mills, the union couldn’t see a way to protect them.

“No one was going to step forward because they were scared,” she noted, echoing the obvious.

So, her groundbreaking book stepped out of the steel closet for them. Let’s hope this resolution not only sheds light on their plight, but also gives them long-needed protections as well. Time will tell.



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