Book On Gay Steelworkers Prompts Union Changes

GARY, Ind. (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of books are published every year in the United States.

Most get overlooked, remaindered, pulped, or consigned to the farthest outer reaches of, never to be read again.

A former Indiana University Northwest English professor overcame the odds faced by most authors, especially those of academic titles. Miller Beach resident Anne Balay wrote a pioneering book about gay steelworkers that has opened eyes and inspired international workplace protections for gay and transgender steelworkers.

Balay's "Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Steelworkers" won the National Women's Studies Association's prestigious Sara A. Whaley Prize this year.

The book also helped prompt the United Steelworkers union to approve a civil rights resolution that includes a constitutional change protecting transgender workers as well as a requirement that local chapters discuss how they will protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender steelworkers before negotiating new contracts, such as by securing them equal health care benefits for their partners.

The union is studying whether every chapter could have a civil rights representative specially trained to work with GLBT workers so they feel comfortable coming forward with any complaints of harassment, and won't fear retaliation for doing so.

The resolution was first approved by Local 6787, which represents workers at ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor, and then when more than 2,500 elected union leaders from across North America gathered at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas in August for the USW's annual International Convention, Local 1010 President Tom Hargrove told The Times ( ).

"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," the resolution says in part.

Balay pursued the changes, which will affect 1.2 million workers and retirees in the steel industry and a range of other sectors, including education, energy, health care, manufacturing, mining, oil, forestry, pharmaceuticals and rubber. She saw the need after interviewing 40 gay, lesbian and transgender steelworkers from Northwest Indiana for her book, which documents the abuse, fear, discrimination and physical attacks they have suffered at the mills.

As part of her extensive research, she met with the USW's civil rights coordinator in Pittsburgh and found GLBT steelworkers had not filed a single complaint about discrimination - ever.

"They were too scared to come forward," she said. "They definitely had a sense this was a problem, but no one stood up to say it was a problem. Once the book came out though, even though the 40 steelworkers were anonymous, it was still out there that they were having these experiences. There was documentation this was happening."

Balay discussed possible legal protections with the steelworkers she interviewed and it came up that the USW would have a constitution convention in August. She wanted to bring forward a resolution just to get union leaders talking and thinking about the issue, so she worked with the civil rights arm of the AFL-CIO union to write a draft.

USW local chapters approved a modified version in Porter County, and then New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California and Massachusetts. The resolution met with some resistance from southern delegates in Las Vegas, but president Leo Gerard shouted them down, saying there would be no discrimination in the union.

For the first time, the union's constitution adds gender identity to the list of protected classes. Gay and lesbian steelworkers can shield their identities, but transgender workers can't, so they face a disproportionate amount of harassment at the mills, Balay said.

One transgender steelworker she interviewed was recently beaten by colleagues outside a bar so badly the vertebrae in her neck were damaged as though she had suffered whiplash in a car wreck, Balay said.

"Working in the factories is dangerous," Balay said. "You take your life in your hands every time you go to work. There's an added layer of danger for gay, lesbian and transgender steelworkers. But every single union member should have a safe workplace."

The USW resolution provided an immediate psychological boost for GLBT steelworkers who had long felt invisible and finally got recognition, Balay said. But the true test will be what changes in the mills take place over the next 10 years, and whether protections are written into contracts and harassment is discouraged.

"Hopefully, future generations in the mills will have an easier life and more acceptance," she said.

The book's impact partly prompted Balay to drop a discrimination complaint she filed against IUN with the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Council last year, after she was denied tenure.

"You would expect universities to be more receptive to this issue than steel mills," she said. "But the USW listened, and the university made it clear they didn't care. So I'm just going to move on. I've got so many cool things to move on to."

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