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Labor Leader Howard Wallace Dies

by Cynthia Laird
Sunday Nov 25, 2012

Howard Wallace, the first openly gay Teamster truck driver and a force behind the long-standing Coors boycott, died November 14 at Buena Vista Manor in San Francisco. He was 76.

Mr. Wallace had been struggling with Alzheimer's for several years, according to a statement from Pride at Work, the LBGT constituency group of the ALF-CIO.

"Yesterday, we lost a champion who paved the way for the work and the victories we see today," Shane Larson, co-president of national Pride at Work, said in a November 15 statement. "Times are changing today because of the work of those who came before us."

Mr. Wallace served as founding co-president of Pride at Work, which he launched with fellow co-president Nancy Wohlforth in the mid-1990s. In 1997 the group was officially recognized as a formal constituency of organized labor and affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Wohlforth continues to serve on the Pride at Work national executive board.

Organizing since the 1960s, Mr. Wallace was known throughout the movement for his pioneering work bringing together the LGBT community and the labor movement. It was a coalition that joined forces in the 1970s and included the late Harvey Milk when he was an activist in the Castro and attempting to run for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Allan Baird, the retired president of Teamsters Local 921, told the Bay Area Reporter that he first met Mr. Wallace in the early 1970s when he was handing out leaflets at 18th and Castro streets. Baird, a longtime ally, has lived in the Castro his entire life.

"I was a Teamster, representing newspaper drivers. In 1975, I was assigned to the beer drivers union to settle a strike," Baird said in a phone interview.

According to a Teamster magazine profile of Baird, the strike was settled with nearly all the beer distributors that serviced San Francisco. The hold out was Coors Brewing Company, which refused to negotiate with the union. It was shortly before the settlement that Mr. Wallace became the first out gay Teamster beer truck driver, Baird recalled.

With Coors refusing to negotiate, Baird started the boycott and enlisted the help of Mr. Wallace to keep the beer out of gay bars.

"I needed to get Coors beer out of gay establishments," Baird said, adding that Milk also joined the boycott and through that alliance, the Teamsters started opening up driving jobs to gays.

"In those days in the union, drivers were not out," Baird said. "Howard led the way and Harvey led the way."

The Teamsters union ultimately ended the Coors boycott in 1976, but in the LGBT community, the boycott is still considered an ongoing concern, and virtually all of the gay bars in San Francisco do not serve the beer. The Coors company also came under fire for its anti-gay policies; in the mid-1990s it extended employee benefits to same-sex partners. Coors family members continue to support various conservative causes.

Mr. Wallace was on the staff of SEIU Local 250 for 14 years as an organizer and community representative. He retired in 2001.

Mr. Wallace was also known for his work opposing the Briggs initiative in 1978. The ballot measure would have barred gays and lesbians from working in California public schools. It was successfully defeated in November 1978, a few weeks before ex-Supervisor Dan White assassinated Milk and then-Mayor George Moscone.

Mr. Wallace was born August 29, 1936 to Edna Horton Wallace and H. Milo Wallace in Philadelphia. His parents relocated first to Worcester, Massachusetts and then to Denver where Mr. Wallace spent most of his upbringing.

While in Denver, Mr. Wallace joined the local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. He also joined the Denver branch of the Socialist Workers Party. In 1962, Mr. Wallace was involved in organizing the Denver Fair Play for Cuba Committee, and in 1965 he was the SWP candidate for the Denver school board. He remained a member of the SWP until the mid-1970s, when he left over the party's reluctance to take on LGBT issues.

Mr. Wallace moved to San Francisco in 1967 with his lover, Roger Hovland. He continued to work in the anti-war movement as a leading organizer of popular opposition to the Vietnam War and as a staff organizer for the National Peace Action Coalition. His actions were successful when he and others brought organized labor into the effort and the Northern California Labor Councils were the first to officially oppose the war.

Mr. Wallace founded Bay Area Gay Liberation in 1975, which, he once said, "was to advance lesbian and gay liberation by reaching out to potential allies within the labor movement, the feminist movement and movements of people of color and national minorities."

Bay Area political figures praised Mr. Wallace's contributions.

"Howard Wallace was a fearless champion for working families, civil rights, and the most vulnerable in our society," state Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) said in a statement. "I was proud to stand with Howard as we fought for universal health care and against the war in Iraq. Our state and nation could use more freedom fighters like Howard, who will never stop believing in social justice. He will be sorely missed by our community."

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), a longtime friend, said that Mr. Wallace's contributions would likely be mentioned at next week's 34th annual march to commemorate the murders of Milk and Moscone.

"He was a wonder," Ammiano told the B.A.R. "When I met him he was really scrappy. More than that were his tremendous contributions not only to LGBTs but to working people in general."

Gabriel Haaland, a transgender man who has long worked for the Service Employees International Union, said the community is "diminished."

"Howard was a fearless warrior for justice in the LGBT and labor communities," said Haaland, Pride at Work co-vice president. "He was an inspiration and mentor to me and many others. May he rest in power."

Mr. Wallace is preceded in death by his parents and his older brother John of Denver. He is survived by sister Barbara Eastburg of Albuquerque, New Mexico; nieces Linda Eastburg and Gwen Lowery of Albuquerque; nieces Wendy Gossett and Laurie Ames of Denver; and nephew Randy Eastburg of Highland Village, Texas.

Friends said that the social movements that Mr. Wallace led and those who continue the struggle also survive him. He remained true to his beliefs throughout his life and for that he has left a bereaved and thankful community of friends.

There will be a memorial on January 6 at ILWU Local 34 (next to AT&T Park) from 2 to 4 p.m. Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers and other major figures will remember Mr. Wallace and his contributions to LGBT, labor, elder, and health care rights.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the following organizations at Mr. Wallace's request: NAACP; ACLU, Northern CA chapter; Pride at Work; KPFA; Senior Action Network; and the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club. Please note "in memory of Howard Wallace."

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