Autoworker Robert Burrell had made many friends during 26 years at Ford's Michigan Truck Plant in Wayne.
That didn't make it any easier to let everyone know he was gay. The quality inspector, now 48, came out at work in the summer of 1997 by attending a supervisor's wedding with his partner.
Burrell says he has endured harassment from co-workers ranging from being groped to seeing anti-gay literature posted throughout the plant.
"Another employee grabbed my ass," Burrell says. "I said, 'Knock it off. What do you think you're doing?' ... He said, 'I heard you like that kind of thing.'"
"I felt like I was being put on display and like I was being reduced to being nothing more than being gay," said Burrell, who emphasized that he was speaking for neither the UAW nor Ford.
Recently ratified contracts between the union and the Big Three automakers give Burrell and other UAW members something they lacked in the past in defending themselves against anti-gay harassment or discrimination — the support of their union. The four-year contracts have opened the union's grievance and arbitration process to anyone alleging unfair treatment based on their sexual orientation.
"It affects thousands and thousands of people," says Nancy Wohlforth, national co-chair for the gay and lesbian workers advocacy group Pride At Work. "They're terrified to come out on the job. Now, they can be who they are and there's some protection for them. That doesn't mean they won't be harassed. But at least now there's some protection if they are."
Because sexual orientation isn't protected under federal law or laws of many states including Michigan, Wohlforth says, union contracts are often gay and lesbian employees' only vehicle for demanding fair treatment in the workplace.
Each of the Big Three had added sexual orientation to their nondiscrimination policies by 1998. However Burrell and other advocates for gay workers say that, at least at Ford and DaimlerChrysler, those policies weren't widely known among plant employees. Moreover, the UAW lacked contract language to act on them.
Burrell says he was able to work things out with the employee who grabbed him by enlisting the help of that worker's supervisor. However, without contract protection, Burrell says he has had to handle workplace harassment mostly on his own.
Employee resource organizations such as Ford GLOBE (Gay, Lesbian Or Bisexual Employees) have been there to advise employees regarding discrimination. GLOBE spokeswoman Cindy Clardy, a Ford cost analyst in product development, says the most common type of anti-gay harassment she hears about is verbal. She says GLOBE tries to help those complaining go through the proper internal channels — a journey that could end up in front of upper management. This year, she says, GLOBE succeeded in having Ford's nondiscrimination statement, including sexual orientation, posted where plant employees can see it. Still, she says, the policy hasn't been something where "their union could go to bat for them."
In one case, she says, a woman who worked in a Ford plant attempted suicide after continuous harassment by at least one co-worker. Clardy says the woman tried going to her UAW representative, but was told "being gay is a choice" and that he could not help her because sexual orientation wasn't in the union contract.
"She didn't come to us until after some verbal harassment and vandalism of her car," Clardy says. "She spent a lot of time crying in bathrooms, switching cars to avoid her harasser. ... We're talking a young twentysomething girl who wasn't even out to her parents. She was terrified."
Now, Clardy says, "It's not just the company's policy. It's the union's policy."
Ron Woods a longtime Chrysler electrician and gay activist, left the automaker last year, allegedly because of harassment including death threats, physical attacks and sabotage. His trouble started after he publicly acknowledged his homosexuality in a 1991 newspaper article about protests over treatment of gay restaurant workers.
"I went through hell," says Woods, who eventually won an out-of-court settlement from his former employer. He spoke with Metro Times by telephone from Florida. "It helped me knowing I was doing the right thing. It's a very good feeling knowing that it worked, even though it was a few years late."
DaimlerChrysler added anti-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation to its UAW agreement earlier this year. GM and Ford followed as part of "pattern bargaining," GM spokesman Edd Snyder says.
DaimlerChrysler spokeswoman Megan Giles said she was "hesitant" to address why Chrysler refused the UAW's request to add the language three years ago.
"I think we've come a long, long way since 1996, and I would like our record to stand on that," she said.
Giles credits People Of Diversity, an employee resource group representing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees at DaimlerChrysler, with helping to bring about the change by boosting company executives' awareness of sexual orientation-related diversity issues.
"It think it has a lot to do with societal changes and society wanting to make sure that groups are represented in the workplace and feel safe in the workplace," Giles says. "This emerged in the mid-1990s, and it is important to employees."
The Big Three have also agreed to study offering domestic partner benefits to UAW employees, lesbian and gay worker advocates say. The automakers have already extended such benefits to Canadian Auto Workers members.
The Big Three contracts include plans to implement diversity education programs. However, People Of Diversity co-chair Michelle Walters says she has yet to see assurances that diversity education will cover sexual orientation. She says she is working to ensure the training goes beyond "the surface of race and gender."
Burrell, who has given sexual orientation-diversity presentations at various plants, says the work to end discrimination on the auto plant floors has only begun. "How do you cascade this information down to the largest section of employees?"
He says he will do whatever he can to help the UAW in that endeavor.
"I will continue bringing these issues to the forefront," he says.
"It's one thing to have a policy. It's a different thing to implement it."