Fighting for a hate-free union

March 30, 2010

Christine Darosa reports on the fight of a transgender union activist in Service Employees International Union Local 1021 to remove a union supervisor from his position because of his reported prejudice.

SAN FRANCISCO--On the heels of the reform slate "Change 1021" victory in Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021's first elections comes another victory: a supervisor in the union's San Francisco office has been fired for what activists say is his prejudice.

Andre Spearman, one of the staff supervisors in the Union's San Francisco office, had reportedly created a hostile work environment through a heavy-handed, top-down approach to working with both staff and rank-and-file membership, combined with blatant disrespect of the membership and staff.

Gabriel Haaland, Local 1021's political coordinator for San Francisco, and a target of what he calls Spearman's harassment, described Spearman as having "a very anti-membership-participation perspective" in a progressive local where the membership has historically been very engaged. In fact, Haaland feels that Spearman's presence and conduct were part of a systematic effort to tamp down rank-and-file activity and involvement in advance of the election.

SEIU local 2010 on the march in San Francisco
SEIU local 2010 on the march in San Francisco (Steve Rhodes)

Over time, Haaland says that an obvious pattern of dismissiveness and derision emerged, though it was difficult to challenge due to Spearman's abusive management style. As workers in the office began to share their experiences, it became clear that Haaland in particular seemed to receive an extra share of abuse due to his identity as a transgender man.

For example, when Haaland was not in the room, Spearman would refer to Gabriel as "he" in a sneering, belittling way--treatment Spearman also reserved for a transgender woman in the rank and file who crossed his path.

In November, Haaland filed a grievance on behalf of the unionized staff with SEIU management. When the grievance was ignored, he filed a complaint with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.


WORKPLACE DISCRIMINATION is still all-too-common for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. A 2006 San Francisco study by the Transgender Law Center (TLC) and Bay Guardian newspaper found that 57 percent of transgender people surveyed had experienced employment discrimination in some form, despite the city having had transgender-inclusive non-discrimination laws since 1994. Further, only 12 percent of those surveyed had filed a formal complaint.

Haaland, a longtime local progressive figure, has been involved in drafting protections and raising visibility around the harassment of transgender workers, and was part of the group of people who worked to get the TLC/Bay Guardian study underway.

Still, it took Haaland some time to make the decision to file the complaint against Spearman. This was due in part, he explained, to not wanting to give ammunition to union-bashers and his belief that, surely, the union could do better--but also in part to the personal difficulty of taking this step.

If deciding to file a complaint was so challenging for Haaland, it is clear how much harder it would be for people in more precarious situations or those who are isolated in their communities. With the threat of repercussions--such as job loss in a population where unemployment is as high as 75 percent--it is easy to understand why so few people might come forward.

Haaland said that when he found out that the Change 1021 slate had won 26 out of the 28 contested union positions, he knew immediately that the new leadership would be responsive to the issues raised in the grievance. He "knew and respected" the people who won, having worked alongside them in the union for years, he explained.

As Larry Bradshaw, the new third vice president of Local 1021, commented recently:

[M]ost of us that were elected to office on the reform slate knew that there were many internal problems with staff and staff management, but we had no idea that there was this sort of harassment occurring. The first we heard about it was when we read about it in the local press a couple days before we took office, and our new rank-and-file chief elected officer moved within a couple days to remove Mr. Spearman from his position in the union.

Haaland feels that Local 1021 is now returning to the "long tradition of progressive, democratic unionism" that he had signed on to when he took his job with SEIU. He also feels that Change 1021's win is connected to the actions happening elsewhere at the grassroots--from labor to the LGBT movement to the March 4 Day of Action against the budget cuts in California.

"Things are different now in a number of different contexts. Old ways of doing things are shutting down," he said. "It excites me...We're winning a lot--in transformative ways, not in traditional ways."

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