SF labor icon Baird, union head spar over Teamsters' name

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday November 15, 2023
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Longtime International Brotherhood of Teamsters member Allan Baird is pushing for the union to add "Sisterhood" to its name and holds a letter he wrote to Teamster leadership. Photo: John Ferrannini
Longtime International Brotherhood of Teamsters member Allan Baird is pushing for the union to add "Sisterhood" to its name and holds a letter he wrote to Teamster leadership. Photo: John Ferrannini

A legendary labor leader and longtime Castro resident is renewing a 31-year-old call for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to change its name so it better reflects that the union's membership is not made up solely of men.

Allan M. Baird, a retired president and business agent of Teamsters Local 921, had led the famous 1973 boycott of Coors beer because of the Coors Brewing Company's then-homophobic and anti-union stances. He famously teamed up on it with then-political newcomer Harvey Milk, a gay man who would go on to win a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.

Baird, a straight ally who has resided in the Castro since 1942, is now 91 years old. The longtime Teamster told the Bay Area Reporter during an interview at his home last week that he first initiated the discussion about changing the union's name with its executive board back in 1992.

While the exact phrasing of his proposed new name has changed since then, Baird told the B.A.R. he believes the union should now be known as the International Sisterhood and Brotherhood of Teamsters.

As Baird wrote in his most recent letter to Teamsters President Sean O'Brien about the need to change the name, "especially when women have been organizing for some time now to seek parity in the workplace and protections from violence there and in the home, as well as full and equal inclusion in all aspects of daily life, and the sole right to make decisions themselves along with their doctors regarding their own health care, it seems only just and natural to see the Teamsters' union reflect their right to equality under the law, in life, and in regard to our union."

Three decades ago Baird said he didn't receive a response from the union's leaders. But he did hear back this year from O'Brien when he renewed his calls that the union change its name. O'Brien was not supportive of Baird's proposal.

"As for the union's name, I understand your desire to remove 'Brotherhood' from the name," O'Brien wrote to Baird in a letter dated May 18. "However, the tradition of the term brotherhood is not gender-related but is a term of inclusion and closeness of people. This is particularly true in the Teamsters as women were members of our ranks from the very beginning of our history."

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters did not return a request for comment for this report as of press time.

Acknowledging women 'critical,' Baird writes

In 1992, after his retirement, Baird made his first name-change entreaty to the union leadership. One of America's largest and most powerful unions, the Teamsters have not always been the most progressive, famously bucking traditional labor-Democratic Party bonds to endorse Richard Nixon's 1972 and Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaigns. More recently, however, the union endorsed Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential race.

Baird had first written O'Brien after he succeeded James P. Hoffa as the union's leader in 2022. Hoffa is the son of late Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, who disappeared in 1975 and is presumed dead.

"At the time [in 1992] I was proposing the International Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Teamsters," Baird wrote O'Brien. "At this time I think it is important to note our membership has changed beyond just gender considerations but also sexual orientation as well. Also of particular note I am happy that you stand with our Transgender Teamsters."

Unsatisfied with the initial response he received from O'Brien in the spring, Baird wrote two more letters to the union leader. (To date, O'Brien has not responded to either one.)

"I respectfully disagree with your characterization," Baird wrote in regard to how O'Brien defined the term brotherhood to be gender expansive. "It is critical to acknowledge directly the many women who are members of the union, like so many men are, and have been for so long. To that end, a more inclusive change seems called for. Adding the word 'sisterhood' is very different from removing the word 'brotherhood.'"

Added Baird in his most recent letter: "I am ninety-one years old, Brother O'Brien. I have worked to do this for thirty years. It is my sincere wish that you carry this through and join our Sister Teamsters with our Brothers in name with our mighty union. Please give this due consideration and a response to this letter would be gratefully appreciated."

Longtime advocate for equality

Baird attributed his support for equality across the spectrum of race, sex, and sexual orientation from his mother's remarks after he danced with a girl at a picnic.

"She made me what I am," he recalled. "We went to a picnic each year in Santa Rosa. I was there and a lot of the children my age were there, dancing with everyone. I came to my mother and she said, 'you're having a lot of fun.' I said 'her eyes are different from mine, they're not as round.' And she said, 'She's an Oriental girl and their eyes are different, but you should respect them. You're not different from anybody else. Always respect women, especially young women.' That stayed in my head."

Baird said he also remembered Japanese- and German-owned businesses that were harassed on Castro Street during World War II; his family had moved to his current residence on Collingwood Street at that time.

It was during his time serving in the United States Army in Korea that he learned even more about racism. Assigned to play in the band, due to a paperwork mix up, he was temporarily assigned to a mostly-Black, mostly-Southern unit in an era when the army had only recently been ordered desegregated.

"I was the only white man in that band," he said. "They said, 'We'll show you the letters we get from our parents.' Some were murdered, homes burned down. Nothing but violence. It's horrible."

After being sent home due to illness, Baird recuperated in Sacramento before returning to the city and getting a job with the San Francisco Chronicle, where he held a union job aiding in newspaper delivery. When he had an issue he contacted the union, which corrected it, and after that he became more and more involved with the local, eventually becoming president and business agent.

Baird met Milk when the latter was starting to make a name for himself as the "Mayor of Castro Street," running for supervisor and once for state Assembly.

"I was walking down Castro with my wife and this guy said, 'I want you to meet him' and I said 'who is him?' and he said, 'he's a politician running for office and I understand you are into politics,'" Baird recalled. "I said, 'I'm not into it much' and he said, 'He wants to help the people. He's for everyone, not just the gays. He's for every faith.' And he was right."

Baird had his first conversation with Milk in Milk's Castro Camera store.

"He talked to me about all the things he wanted to do to make the Castro better and San Francisco better," Baird said. "He said 'there's not going to be any discrimination in San Francisco when I get finished.'"

It was the beginning of a cooperative relationship between the straight union man and the gay civil rights icon. Tragically, Milk and then-mayor George Moscone were assassinated in City Hall by disgruntled ex-supervisor Dan White on November 27, 1978.

In 1973, Baird took charge of a union strike against Bay Area beer distributors, including the Coors Brewing Company. Baird reached out to his neighbor, Milk, to build a coalition. Coors also had a 178-question employment application form, as Nancy Wohlforth explained in 2017 on the International Brotherhood of Teamsters' website.

"One question demanded: 'Are you a homosexual?' If you answered 'yes,' that terminated your application," she stated. "Another demanded 'Are you pro-union?' If you answered 'yes,' that terminated you, too."

The successful boycott ended in the mid-1980s. (In some circles, the Coors boycott has never really ended, and it was only in more recent years that the Molson-Coors Company, as it's now known, began enacting more LGBTQ-friendly policies for workers. It scored 100% on the national Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index in 2021 and 2022.)

'Folks are becoming less siloed'

Baird is not alone in his wish for a more inclusive name for the Teamsters. Susan Englander, a bisexual woman who is political director of the California Faculty Association chapter at San Francisco State University, where she teaches, told the B.A.R. that the Teamsters and the association are currently joining forces on the picket line.

The Teamsters and the association are urging the California State University system to bargain in good faith on longtime demands, with particular sticking points being over raises, health benefits, and a lack of gender-neutral bathrooms on campuses. Faculty at several of the state's universities are holding one-day strikes next month, with those at SF State planning to do so December 5.

"Allan is a bulldog," Englander told the B.A.R. "Twenty-five percent of the Teamsters' membership is female today. That wasn't true 50 years ago, and Allan wasn't the only element of these changes, but I feel as though his work in our communities really shifted the ground in terms of the awareness of the union movement in terms of other people's rights, the fact that other people became aware of union jobs and its benefits, and fought to get those jobs."

Englander helped Baird write the letters to O'Brien.

"I'm not surprised Allan got this response," she said.

"Allan himself was a center of activity of motion and of change," Englander added. "Thirty years later after Allan started this effort, he's older. Allan is reaching the point he wants something to happen in this long-term effort he has put into changing the name of the Teamsters."

Also supporting Baird is Tizoc Arenas, a straight ally who is a business agent at Teamsters Local 223 in Gladstone, Oregon. He told the B.A.R., "Essentially I'm trying to help navigate sort of the processes to do this formally, but also I'm trying to organize and build support for this in our union.

"In the past 10 or so years there's a lot more progressivism [in the union] and folks are becoming less siloed, being exposed to other movements," Arenas said. "Of course, there are folks who have issues with the name change. It's part of our history and legacy. Once folks understand why the change is necessary, it's like anything else we do in the labor movement. It takes education, it takes time and it takes a base of support. People within our union and outside of our union are generally supportive of it."

In a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, which was not published, Arenas wrote that "a name change for our union Allan believes honors the commitment our union has made to a more progressive ideological shift. I, for one, feel the same way — it is our hope to help continue to move our union and the labor movement overall in a more progressive direction."

Cleve Jones, a longtime gay community and Castro neighborhood leader who currently works for the UNITE HERE hospitality union, has known Baird since the 1970s. As the B.A.R. previously reported, Jones led a tribute march for Baird to his Castro residence during 2021's Pride festivities.

"Allan Baird is a union man and he loves his union and he's been pushing this union to be better for decades," Jones said. "Decades ago he built an alliance between Teamsters and the LGBT community. He spoke out against racism within the Teamsters and now he's still pushing them on gender equity."

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