Activist Tales

Cleve Jones offers a model of labor-LGBT solidarity
By MATTHEW JERZYK  |  November 7, 2007
Jonesinside
Cleve Jones
During a recent forum, Cleve Jones, the renowned international AIDS activist, told a fascinating tale about how the assassination of Harvey Milk led him to become a prominent bridge-builder between the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community and the labor movement.
 
Milk — one of the nation’s first openly gay elected officials — was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. An icon in the gay community, Milk was also a father-figure to Jones, who, a short time later, got a job working for Milk at San Francisco City Hall. 
 
In November 1978, a vengeful former cop, Dan White, snuck into City Hall, shooting and killing Mayor George Moscone and Milk.
 
Jones recounted to the participants during a November 4 forum at AIDS Project Rhode Island that he had left City Hall that day to get papers at home and was returning when he came across a union picket line at a popular gay restaurant.  He joined the picket line because Local 2 of the Hotel Workers Union was one of the only unions to support the LGBT community. He learned of Milk’s murder a short time later. (The outrageously short seven-year sentence given to Milk’s killer inspired the famous White Night Riots between the LGBT community and the police.)   
 
Nearly 30 years later, Jones is hailed as the founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which began as a memorial and a celebration of the lives of people who have died of AIDS-related illnesses. Jones dedicated the very first square to his best friend, Marvin Feldman, who hailed from Providence and passed away here. With more than 85,000 panels, it is now considered the world’s largest community-arts project. 
 
According to Jones, the death toll from the AIDS epidemic hit 1000 just in his Castro Street neighborhood. “An entire generation perished,” he says. “[Those that died] were brilliant and were going to be the nation’s greatest writers, mayors, organizers and artists. I started the quilt because I was afraid that they were not going to be remembered.”
 
Jones’s activism did not stop with the quilt. As the struggle around AIDS became more global and more centered around access to health-care, he continued to cultivate his longtime relationship with the hotel workers’ union (now called UNITE HERE).
 
During a massive 2004 labor dispute between 4000 hotel workers and management, he strategized with union leaders about how to take advantage of how many people in the LGBT community work in the hospitality industry and also are powerful consumers — representing close to $60 billion in the travel market.
 
Soon, Jones became a community organizer for the union, focused on building bridges between the LGBT community and the union’s Hotel Rising campaign, an international effort to raise wages and living standards for hotel workers around the world.   
 
“Our campaign is about globalization and ways for ordinary folks to fight back against forces that we think are beyond our control,” Jones said. “It’s also about universal healthcare, and I don’t think we are going to get universal health care without a strong labor movement.”
 
Julie Davids, the Providence-based executive director of the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP), agreed with Jones, pointing out that 250,000 people in the United States who are affected by HIV/AIDS “don’t have the consistent retroviral drugs they need in order to combat the virus, because they don’t have the healthcare coverage to pay it.”
 
Reflecting on his years of activism, Jones said coyly, “I feel like a kid again. It’s 1974 and I’m with Harvey Milk again; fighting the police.”
 
You can find out more about Jones’s organizing efforts at sleepwiththerightpeople.org.

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