Cleve Jones: Lessons from the LGBT and labor movements
Cleve Jones visited Boston on Monday and stopped by the MassEquality office to chat with local activists and visit the UNITE HERE, Local 26 (hospitality industry) offices. Jones is a veteran human rights/social justice activist, probably best known for having been portrayed by actor Emile Hirsch in Milk, Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biopic of Harvey Milk. In 1982, Jones co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and in 1987 conceived of the idea for the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which has since become the world’s largest community arts project, which commemorates the lives of more than 85,000 people who have died of AIDS. He was involved in the 2009 March on Washington and, in recent years, Jones has worked as a union activist and organizes at the intersection of the LGBT community and the labor movement.
Jones took a moment to talk with Bay Windows about what’s what.
Sue O’Connell: So what have you been doing and what brings you to Boston?
Cleve Jones: For the last 6 or 7 years I’ve been working within the labor movement, Unite Here International Union in U.S. and Canada. Focusing mostly on the hospitality work force. I’m in Boston to meet with Local 26 and talk with student activists at Simmons College.
SO: What are your thoughts on the Occupy Movement?
CJ: I hear criticism that Occupy doesn’t have a cohesive message but I think it is very cohesive. They are talking about things we haven’t talked about since the 1930s; like collective bargaining. I’m very excited about the movement. There have been some problems but by and large it has been important and good work.
SO: How do you think the older generation can connect with the young adults driving Occupy?
CJ: Our older brothers and sisters in the labor movement have to make time to engage with them. Make it a personal responsibility to have conversations and cross generational dialogue.
I’m not without cynicism but this is a new and exciting development for our country. The Occupy actions can be kind of crazy—in Portland (OR) it looked like a skateboard park some days. But on nights when the Occupiers feared a police raid the older activists would engage them in conversations. It was great.
SO: How does the LGBT civil rights movement fit into all the activism of this generation?
CJ: It’s clear for this younger generation of gays and straights the LGBT movement is the defining issues of their time. I suspected that was true, visiting colleges during the film (Milk), talking to young people about this important time in the history of our movement, where we see victory looming. I don’t know how long it will take to get full equality under the law, but there’s good chance I’ll see it in my lifetime. What then? Part of our work will be in the labor movement. We’ve learned that if we fight only to advance a narrow slice it will be a shallow movement. Our founders saw it as part of a broader effort. One for social justice.
One issue that concerns me greatly is the consequence of corporate entities to controlling our organizations. Just look at our national groups—all take large amounts of money from corporate donors. I think it should stop completely. For Pride and arts groups I think it’s ok, but not for political advocacy groups. Corporations should not have seats on our political organization’s boards. Just look what happened at GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) <referring to AT&T controversy>. It was an incrwedible misstep. It’s a big issue with Hyatt. Our members take great risk to stand up to corporations.
SO: Let me play devil’s advocate—if these major sponsors don’t donate who will pay for the work? The community doesn’t contribute money in large amounts.
CJ: Who are we blaming? How few contribute to organizations? What does that say about the organizations if ordinary gay folk aren’t giving them enough? Really? Who’s at fault? Ordinary people or the organizations who have failed to inspire. I’ve been around a long time. This is my 40th year in the movement. I’ve never seen anything close to what’s unfolded since the fall. When I make my list of the most amazing stuff that’s happened in the past 5 years none has come from those groups. People see big salaries and bureaucracy, personal arrogance and incompetence.
SO: I recently heard President Bill Clinton talking about how important it is to get young activists to do hands on work. He said social media started the Arab Spring but couldn’t win the elections. How do you bridge that gap?
CJ: I started out, and remain, skeptical of online organizing. Clicking a mouse will not bring us the change we need but, it is offset by its incredible power to link us together. The Equality March was a good example. It moved us forward; maintained momentum.
One thing we <the LGBT community> do, which is dreadful, is anytime someone says “let’s do something” everyone says it won’t work. Voter registration, organizing workers, these are things we need to do over and over. It moves us forward a little at a time. We need to appreciate that we need all these efforts and stop being so critical of each other.
SO: What’s happening with the Hyatt?
CJ: The Hyatt is a good example of what we are against. They spend good money marketing to our community. They have a 100% rating from HRC. This huge corporation are brutal exploiters of immigrant women. They prevent workers from organizing; have issues around on the job injuries, workload, pay, access to health care. The LGBT community should care about this—we should be standing with these people. We don’t seem to recognize marketing ploys for what they are.
We want to raise these workers out of poverty. These are essential jobs which can’t be outsourced. If you don’t have the advanced degree or IT brainpower—what’s left? Service industry jobs. We are repeating a cycle. Unions help people climb up and out of these jobs.
SO: What’s your pitch to the LGBT community to pay attention to the labor and union issues?
CJ: Pay attention to supporting working class people. Working class people are under attack. If you look at the polls on LGBT issues you’ll see that one area we are not successfully conveying our message is to working families, immigrants, and people of faith. The unions offer us this avenue to connect to these people and most unions support LGBT rights.