The Kapanowski Challenge: The Intersection of Sexuality, Labor Activism, and Deindustrialization on the Shop Floor

By James McQuaid

On May 10, 1973, Gary Kapanowski walked into work and was greeted by orange and black fliers papered throughout the plant denouncing him as “a faggot,” asking workers at the plant, “Do you want a faggot to be your chairman of the shop committee?”[i] Kapanowski had worked at the Briggs Beautyware stamping plant alongside his father and uncles since 1965, while pursuing a teaching degree at Wayne State University. He was, indeed, running for chairman of the shop committee to represent Briggs workers and was, also, a homosexual. Kapanowski was far from the first LGBTQ individual to challenge existing political power structures in Michigan or run for elected office. In 1972, for example, activists successfully lobbied the East Lansing city government to end discrimination against gays and lesbians in hiring. In nearby Ann Arbor, these efforts were quickly followed by successful revisions to that city’s nondiscrimination laws, made possible by the city’s Human Rights Party (HRP), an LGBTQ-inclusive political party that won power by building a grassroots coalition among labor unions, anti-war groups, and university students. In Detroit, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was beginning to challenge the city’s repressive policing policies, which specifically targeted and criminalized LGBTQ activity in the city.

In the early 1970s, cities across the country struggled to come to terms with rapid changes in identity, the nature of work, and liberalized attitudes towards traditionally normative ideas of sexuality and gender roles. Nowhere was this intersection of labor and sexuality perhaps more pronounced than in Michigan, where the emergence of radical groups led to calls for increased rights of women and LGBTQ people, simultaneously challenging deindustrialization’s economic violence against marginalized communities. While many historians rightly view the early 1970s as a period of rapid social change, it is understandable that some might be caught off guard in learning that factories and auto plants in Detroit also served as a site of LGBTQ-led activism, as the shop floor is most commonly characterized as an essential space of masculinity and male identity. While Kapanowski’s own campaign for shop committee chairman centered the economic livelihoods of his UAW union brothers and sisters, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, his efforts are best understood in this intersection of labor and LGBTQ activism.

By the 1970s, auto production in metropolitan Detroit had largely become balkanized and suburbanized through a process that historians Joshua Murray and Michael Schwartz characterize as “capital’s war on labor,” wherein auto production was spread across metropolitan space to make union coordination and labor activism more challenging.[ii] In Kapanowski’s suburban factory, in Sterling Heights, MI, the homophobic propaganda papered throughout the plant represented one, last ditch effort by Kapanowski’s opponents to defeat his election bid. His campaign had slowly gathered support of frustrated rank-and-file workers at Briggs, who feared their plant might soon close. Up until this point, the seat had remained firmly in the hands of officers who had proven remarkably conciliatory with Briggs management.

Ford workers at union hall, 1940, photograph by Otto Hagel, 1940. Prints and Photographs Division.

Briggs stood as a massive auto manufacturer and parts supplier in Detroit until it was bought up by the Chrysler Corporation in 1953. Briggs held onto one remaining plant in Sterling Heights, which continued to produce bathtubs and other plumbing fixtures under the company’s continued Beautyware division. This independent Briggs Beautyware plant continued to perform some extra stamping work for Chrysler throughout the 1960s, with workers at the plant retaining their affiliation with the UAW’s Local 212. Kapanowski became interested in shop-floor politics and union representation when, in the early 1970s, rumors started circling among workers at Briggs that the plant was due to be shut down and moved to the south. This was an already well-known practice in the ’70s, when many runaway shops had relocated to southern US states in pursuit of cheaper, nonunion labor. Kapanowski first tried to secure a position as a union representative in 1972, when he ran for a position on the UAW’s bargaining team, which would negotiate the next contract between Briggs and its employees.

Stressing the importance of keeping factories in the area, Kapanowski argued the negotiating team could force Briggs to add language to their contract guaranteeing the plant would not be closed. The 1972 bargaining team elections were remarkably close and, only after alleged irregularities in the election process favored Kapanowski’s opponent, was Kapanowski declared the loser. A new agreement was hammered out and approved over the following months. Some criticized the new contract for introducing several concessions to the company, among which included mandatory overtime for workers at the plant. Despite the demands of some rank-and-file workers, like Kapanowski, to add language to the contract barring Briggs from relocating, the bargaining team abandoned the idea after repeated promises by management that rumors around the plant’s closure were false, and that no plans for relocation were being considered. After negotiators signed the agreement, however, Briggs management reversed course when they announced to workers that the plant would, in fact, be closed sometime in 1973 or 1974, so production could be moved to a new facility in Knoxville, TN.

Pamphlet, Detroit branch of the homophile organization ONE, between 1971-1974, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

For many production workers at Briggs, the news was devastating. Most of the workers at Briggs were far older than Kapanowski; in many cases, they had put in upwards of 20 years at Briggs with the belief that they would be able to work at the Sterling Heights plant until their eventual retirement. Now, however, with extremely limited job prospects, no formal training or college education, and a shrinking job market, many workers feared for their futures. While Briggs assured employees they would have the option to transfer to Tennessee, they were shocked to learn their wages would be nearly halved and, with Tennessee being a “right to work” state, continued union representation was likely out of the question.[iii] It was in the context of this betrayal that Kapanowski launched his campaign for chairman of the shop committee; believing that the move to Tennessee could still potentially be stopped, he also understood that a more confrontational voice on the shop committee, speaking for the interests of the rank-and-file, could lead to a better closing agreement for the workers left behind by Briggs.

Tile Store Block, Detroit, Michigan, photograph by John Margolies, 1976, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The 1973 election for chairman of the shop committee was even more tenuous, in many respects, than the election of the previous year. Workers at Briggs were frustrated with the announcement of the closure, and this discontent threatened to boil over into a wildcat strike, or other militant action, if it was not properly contained. While to Kapanowski, this represented an opportunity to strike back against the epidemic of plant closings and runaway shops that continued to affect Detroiters, to the UAW, this represented a serious threat. Much of the UAW’s organizational power, dating back to the original sit-down strikes of the 1930s and 1940s, hinged on the UAW’s ability to control worker actions in ongoing labor disputes.[iv] This organizational discipline sits at the core of why auto manufacturers, giants like Ford or GM as well as smaller companies like Briggs, were willing to bargain with the UAW over set contracts. Kapanowski, by comparison, stood apart from the union hierarchy at Briggs, in part because of his decidedly radical approach to politics. A member of the United National Caucus (UNC), a dissident group within the UAW which sympathized with other rank-and-file organizations like DRUM and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Kapanowski felt that unions needed to take a more confrontational and militant approach to deindustrialization and the runaway shop.

Gay Community Detroit Calendar for March 1976, Detroit branch of the homophile organization ONE, between 1971-1974, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Kapanowski’s opponents, partly acting to protect the limited benefits won in the 1972 contract, but also in part attempting to retain their own power on the shop floor, took several actions in bids to diminish his appeal to the rank-and-file. The papering of the plant with fliers outing Kapanowski was just the final incident of a long string of harassment he faced throughout his 1973 campaign for shop committee chairman. The rank-and-file at Briggs rejected these campaign tactics, however, and ultimately voted Kapanowski into the position as chairman by a near 2-1 margin.[v] Soon after taking control of the position of chairman, the shop committee launched a legal campaign wherein they sued Briggs to force the company to keep operations in Michigan. Judges threw out the case after the UAW refused to get behind the initiative, however; supporters of the ‘72 contract argued that there was a plethora of legal methods Briggs could use to get around challenges to their relocation efforts. After this effort fell through, the shop committee announced that union members would no longer work on mandatory overtime shifts, demanding Briggs and the UAW revisit the ‘72 contract in wake of the relocation announcement. This put the shop committee in direct confrontation with Briggs, which refused all calls for renegotiation, and demanded action from the UAW International.

To officers at Solidarity House, the Detroit headquarters of the UAW, if Kapanowski was able to unilaterally excuse workers from mandatory overtime, then Briggs might legally be able to view their contract as void. This put the benefits agreed to under the original 1972 contract in direct jeopardy, prompting the UAW to act. Kapanowski and the shop committee were excused, and the committee representing Briggs workers was put under receivership, essentially undoing the previous 1973 election, and ordering workers to return to their mandatory overtime shifts. Kapanowski returned to Briggs the next day, but instead of finding the Beautyware plant operating as normal, workers at the plant had gathered in the parking lot, engaged in a wildcat strike, and refused to return to work until Kapanowski was reinstated and Briggs management agreed to bargain with him. Ultimately the UAW, Kapanowski’s radical shop committee, and Briggs management reached an updated agreement where workers would return to their mandatory overtime shifts. While the plant would still relocate, Briggs agreed to contribute an additional $1 million dollars into the UAW pension fund set aside for workers left behind by Briggs’ relocation.[vi]

Palker Pontiac, West Detroit, Michigan, photograph by John Margolies, 1976, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Kapanowski continued to serve as shop committee chairman until the Briggs factory in Sterling Heights finally closed in 1974. Tasked with handing out final checks to workers at the end of their last shifts at the plant, he was the last one to leave. Kapanowski eventually left Detroit to move to Pennsylvania, where he found success as an organizer for AFSCME in its drive to unionize employees at Temple University. Ultimately, he served as president of AFSCME’s Local 1723 for nearly thirty years, representing Temple University’s Professional, Technical and Administrative Employees from 1977 until his retirement in 2007.

Kapanowski’s experiences were, and still are, important for a variety of reasons. First, Kapanowski demonstrated the continued importance of collective bargaining, even in the face of economic downturn and collapse. Although metropolitan Detroit’s auto industry, and tangential economic sectors, had been struggling for some time by 1972, workers at Briggs were able to use their union solidarity to demand compensation for work from Briggs in the wake of their announcement to abandon the community. Through collective worker power and action, even though the Briggs shop eventually relocated, Briggs employees could rely on some measure of economic security as they worked to rebuild their lives amid the turmoil of deindustrialization.

Second, Kapanowski demonstrated the ability of rank-and-file workers to overcome homophobia and other divisive forces when threatened with economic crisis and deprivation; by developing working-class consciousness, and rejecting homophobic attacks by corrupt officials, workers at Briggs were able to mount an effective defense of their workplace rights and economic security, ensuring that their closing benefits from the company would be greater and more robust. Third, and lastly, Kapanowski’s victory over Briggs management proved that working-class militancy, even when challenging union hierarchy, is essential to the success of the labor movement. By forcing the company and the UAW back into negotiations, workers at Briggs secured over $1 million dollars more for their pension fund. By embracing working-class militancy and rank-and-file dissent, one comes to understand that unions can build a more enthusiastic and determined base of support, through which they can collectively (and more effectively) challenge corporate power and greed.

2020-01-09 15.03.24.jpgJames McQuaid is a PhD student studying labor history at Detroit’s Wayne State University. His forthcoming dissertation will explore the UAW and its intersection with LGBTQ community and queer subjectivites throughout history. Originally from the city of Lansing, James received his Bachelor of Arts in English Language and Literature from Grand Valley State University in 2012, before eventually moving to Detroit for studies in 2017. In the interim, James also garnered experience working in the nonprofit industry, as a workplace safety advocate, and in union organizing.

[i] Gary Kapanowski’s struggle at Briggs is recounted in Miriam Frank’s groundbreaking work, Out in the Union; A Labor History of Queer America as well as in Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin’s Detroit, I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution. Mr. Kapanowski was also kind enough to speak to me via phone interview on May 30, 2018. Through extensive research, much of his account was found to be factually supported with primary source material found at Wayne State University’s Walter P. Reuther Archive of Labor and Urban Affairs (UAW Region 1B Recors) and from articles taken by The Detroit News, The Detroit Free Press, and other papers and newsletters.

Featured image (at top): Business Card for the Detroit branch of the homophile organization ONE, between 1971-1974, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[ii] Michael Schwartz and Joshua Murray, “Collateral Damage: How Capital’s War on Labor Killed Detroit,” Catalyst, v1, n1 (2017), pp. 117-150

[iii] Wages for transferring workers were tentatively put at 2.40 per hour, down from an approximated 5.00 per hour at the plant in Sterling Heights. 2.40 in 1972 would average out to only a little over $14 per hour in 2018.

[iv] Various biographies on Walter Reuther himself demonstrate how this organizational discipline provided a key role in winning the UAW early recognition. At one of Reuther’s first organization actions, he provoked a strike at one auto parts manufacturer before offering to management to get plant workers to resume their duties. When taken up on this offer, Reuther began passing out UAW membership cards to the strikers, explaining to astonished managers that he could not bargain for workers and get them back on task if they were not members of the UAW. (See Elisabeth Reuther Dickmeyer’s Reuther: A Daughter Strikes).

[v] Through phone interviews with Gary Kapanowski, the author has learned that after losing his re-election bid, Kapanowski’s opponent went on to take a management position with Briggs. The decision angered many of the rank-and-file at the plant.

[vi] $1 million in 1974 is roughly equivalent in purchasing power to $5.2 million in 2019; divided evenly over the plants approximate 700 workers and 140 retirees, this would amount to an average of $6,000 in additional compensation made available to Briggs workers through their union pension fund.

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