For Pride Month, the AFL-CIO is spotlighting various LGBTQ Americans who have worked and continue to work at the intersection of civil and labor rights. Our next profile is Bill Olwell.
In 1953, Bill Olwell started working as a grocery clerk at Lucky's supermarket in Seattle, where he became a member of the Seattle Retail Clerks Local 1001. In 1959, he became a business representative for the local and in 1968, he was elected president. He held that position for a decade, and starting in 1972, he was an international vice president of the Retail Clerks International Association, as well.
Afraid that others would exploit his sexual orientation, he stayed in the closet during this time and often took a friend who was a lesbian to union social events as a cover story. "It wasn't that often, but I used her for years, and it took the heat off," he said. But as Olwell rose up the union's ranks, political opponents began attempting to derail him using gay smears, despite the fact that his activism was focused on labor, not LGBTQ rights.
Olwell also served as president of the King County Labor Council. He was an outspoken advocate for racial integration in construction and strongly opposed the Vietnam War. These more radical stances were at odds with many in the Seattle labor movement at the time, so they began a smear campaign against him focused on his homosexuality.
The efforts were too little and too late. Olwell had worked hard for the membership and helped secure contracts after several strikes. He also helped organize insurance and bank workers. One of his biggest victories was negotiating with Seattle's high-end department stores to end long-standing gender-based discrimination. Women comprised approximately 75% of the local and Olwell had helped many of them get a big bump in pay. They supported him enthusiastically: "Those members could have cared less about me being gay. From that day on, there was a huge change in me. I stopped worrying about what people knew."
When he was running for re-election as president of Local 1001 in 1969, Olwell realized that focusing on the issues that actually matter to workers was not only the right thing to do, but popular as well:
I always knew that if I could get the election on my experience and my delivery, I would win, and as it turned out I did. Once I put my contracts up front, the gay thing just wasn't an issue. I don't think it cost me ten votes out of the four thousand that voted. We had 121 polling places, and I won every polling place but one, and the day after the election, I started working on that one.
He later moved to Washington, D.C., with his partner Eddie Miller. In the nation's capital he worked on the merger between the Retail Clerks and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters to form the new United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Despite another campaign to smear him because of his sexuality, he was elected national vice president. In 1981, he became the international union's executive vice president and assistant to President Bill Wynn. UFCW would grow to become the largest member of the AFL-CIO during this time, surpassing 1 million members.
Despite the frequent and vicious attacks against his sexuality, Olwell never let them distract him from his efforts on behalf of working people:
People would dismiss me as a lightweight because I'm gay, and then when they saw my influence, they figured that Bill (Wynn) and I had an affair. I was a trench fighter, a real political operator. The question of my gayness only came up when people couldn't think of anything else to say against me.
In 2015, the UFCW's LGBTQ constituency group, OUTreach, named its "Champion of Equality Award" in Olwell's honor.
Additional source: Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America by Miriam Frank.