Op-ed by from the Harvey Milk Club and SF Pride at Work regarding the firing of gay deckhand Vincent Atos by Hornblower Cruises.
Help end anti-gay discrimination
by David Waggoner and Josué Argüelles
The movement for LGBTIQQ equality is making real progress. Congress is finally set to pass an Employment Non-Discrimination Act inclusive of gender identity, and the House of Representatives recently voted to phase out “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Despite this progress, many LGBTIQQ people continue to experience discrimination and hostility in the workplace, even in San Francisco. Such discrimination is often masked by innuendo and subterfuge.
A good example is the problem at Alcatraz Cruises, which fired one of its most popular deckhands, Vincent Atos, for alleged sexual harassment. Atos is a gay, Filipino union supporter. After working as a deckhand for three years in an environment known for salty language, Atos was summarily dismissed. He was fired after he began talking to his co-workers not about sex – but about organizing a union to improve their working conditions.
Alcatraz Cruises – a subsidiary of Hornblower – fired Atos even though his co-workers voted him “Employee of the Year” in 2007. The company says Atos was harassing the same co-workers who previously had honored him. What really happened, according to Atos, is that he dared to speak up for the majority of his co-workers who want a union at Alcatraz Cruises. Because it is illegal to retaliate against an employee for union activity, the company needed a pretext to fire Atos.
The company found its pretext in Atos’s other “sin”: being openly gay. He didn’t flaunt it, but he didn’t hide it either. In the waterfront world where Atos was employed, his heterosexual co-workers weren’t shy about sharing sexual jokes and lewd remarks. Some even reportedly viewed straight pornography at work. Alcatraz Cruises’ management either looked the other way or participated directly in the sexual banter. Atos also occasionally chimed in with his own gay jokes. The company inexplicably characterized Atos’s remarks as sexual harassment, while ignoring the crude and lewd conduct of straight workers and managers. This disparate treatment amounts to anti-gay discrimination.
A coalition of LGBT groups are backing Atos and demanding justice from Hornblower/Alcatraz Cruises, including Pride at Work and the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club. San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission is now investigating Atos’s case, but it will take a while and its powers are limited. The HRC is an important body that deserves our support, but we can’t depend on it alone.
The same is true for the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that’s also investigating Atos’s case. However, the NLRB is notoriously slow and often ineffective when it comes to holding employers accountable for violating workers’ rights. The NLRB previously investigated charges that Hornblower/Alcatraz Cruises had violated workers’ rights, but the company got off with a settlement that amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist.
San Francisco’s Democratic County Central Committee and the San Francisco Labor Council has gone on record supporting Atos, and every member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors has urged that Hornblower/Alcatraz Cruises respect the right of employees to form a union. Our state legislators, Tom Ammiano, Mark Leno, and Fiona Ma have done the same, and Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office has been monitoring Atos’s case.
Hornblower’s contracts with the National Park Service generate millions in revenue every year. But when a private company with extremely generous government contracts engages in anti-gay discrimination, we should take action. While we wait for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn, here’s what we can do:
Avoid Hornblower Cruises. If you hear about an event being planned at Hornblower, let your friends know that Hornblower appears on the AFL-CIO boycott list of the worst companies that violate human rights. Encourage them to take their business elsewhere (Blue and Gold Fleet or Red and White Fleet).
Rally at Hornblower/Alcatraz Cruises. It’s important for the public to know what kind of bigotry is behind Hornblower. Our next action will be announced soon. Please join us to make our voices heard against bigotry.
Ask the National Park Service to do a better job of policing lucrative contracts with companies that violate labor and human rights. Contact the chief of NPS’ contracting division, Aaron Roth, at (415) 561-4949 to tell him to protect our community and the public interest against bigots.
Urge the HRC to conduct a full investigation of Atos’s case. Contact the HRC at ( class=apple-style-span>415) 252-2500 and tell them we’re counting on the HRC to help ensure our workplaces are free of discrimination class=apple-converted-space>.
As we wait for Congress to pass ENDA, and to repeal DADT, we know that some companies like Hornblower will find a way around clear anti-discrimination laws. Ultimately, if it can happen to Atos, it can happen to you. While ENDA and other anti-discrimination laws will go a long way toward protecting us from bigotry, laws alone are not enough. We must use our collective voice to demand justice.
David Waggoner is co-president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club; Josué Argüelles is a project manager and field organizer with Pride at Work.