Throughout Pride Month, the AFL-CIO will be taking a look at some of the pioneers whose work sits at the intersection of the labor movement and the movement for LGBTQ equality. Our first profile is Tom Barbera.
Tom Barbera was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, but moved to Boston and grew to become a legend in the movements for LGBTQ rights and working people, both in his adopted hometown, and in the larger world around him.
Colleague and friend Harneen Chernow wrote about Barbera at the time of his passing:
I first met Tom in the early years of the Gay and Lesbian Labor Activists Network (GALLAN), an organization of Boston area gay and lesbian union members that came together in the late 80s to bridge the two movements – bringing the fight for class and economic justice to gay and lesbian activism and the fight for gay rights to the labor movement. It is easy to forget what life was like for gay adults in the late 80s and early 90s as many folks were closeted at work, in their unions and to their families. But not Tom. He was as out as one could be, demanding not just acceptance but a full and fabulous welcome wherever he went.
GALLAN is an important organization in the history of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, started to promote and secure workplace and other rights for the LGBTQ community. Barbera was an early and important activist for the group and he not only pursued justice and equality in GALLAN, he was active in his SEIU local and the Democratic Party. All while doing his day job serving people with developmental disabilities at the Walter E. Fernald State School.
Later, Barbera helped organize one of the first LGBTQ receptions at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., in 1992. He was an active participant in the conference that led to the founding of Pride At Work. In Boston, he helped grow his local union's Lavender Caucus and helped create SEIU's International Lavender Caucus, eventually becoming national co-chair. He also was the first delegate from GALLAN or Pride At Work to serve on the Massachusetts AFL-CIO Executive Board.
There is no replacing Tom Barbera. As they say, he was a force. Tom’s untiring commitment to a democratic labor movement, a progressive Democratic Party, electeds that represent the little guy and fight for workers’ rights, an LGBT community that took on economic and racial privilege, as well as his loyalty to friends and unending adoration for the many special people in his life, is impossible to put into words.
Upon his passing, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry fondly remembered Barbera:
I loved his wicked sense of humor and his insistence on what was fair and just. Tom had a strong belief in equality and the right of people to love who they love without judgment. He stuck his neck out and demanded equality for LGBTQ people long before it was accepted, or even safe, to do so. He was righteously indignant against all forms of oppression—racism, sexism, classism—and he wanted his brothers and sisters to understand and back each other. He lived as an ally.