Unionists back marriage equality, in and out of high court

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WASHINGTON - Inside and outside the U.S. Supreme Court, unionists backed the right of same-sex couples to marry as the justices held hearings on two separate cases on the issue.

United for Marriage, an umbrella organization of gay rights supporters and activists, staged rallies outside the Supreme Court, drawing hundreds of people to its plaza. They included members of unions in the Metro D.C. Central Labor Council - which publicized the event - and Pride at Work, the AFL-CIO's constituency group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender unionists.

Activists held similar rallies in other cities nationwide, again timed to coincide with the court's session. The justices will rule on the two cases by June 30.

Inside, the federation, Change To Win and the National Education Association previously joined together in filing "friend of the court" briefs supporting same-sex marriage and federal civil rights equality for same-sex couples. Also, union leaders issued prepared statements strongly supporting equality for same-sex couples.

The justices heard two cases involving the rights of same-sex couples. The first, on March 26, challenged a 2008 California referendum, Proposition 8, overturning that state's Supreme Court ruling that let gay couples marry. With huge but hidden financing from the Mormon Church, Prop 8 passed 52-48 percent. Polls show it would not pass today.

The second case, on March 27, asked the justices to toss out the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which the radical right pushed through the GOP-run Congress in 1996, denying federal benefits to same-sex spouses. That bars gays and lesbians from everything from joint deductions on tax returns to military death benefits.

In both cases, advocates of gay marriage said the referendum and DOMA violate equal protection of the law. The unions' briefs, which are not part of the court's hearing, came down strongly for the right of same-sex couples to marry and against the DOMA.

The Obama administration refused to defend DOMA, so House Republicans did.

Proposition 8 "perpetuates a two-tiered workforce" rife with discrimination by downgrading gay and lesbian workers below their colleagues in health care and other benefits, the unions said. Gays and lesbian workers are also deprived of "basic respect and dignity" that their heterosexual colleagues receive, the unions added.

"We bargain and advocate for domestic partner benefits in union contracts, for prohibitions forbidding employers from firing gay and lesbian workers because of sexual orientation, and for programs to help end discrimination in the workplace," they added.

That gives unions two reasons to argue that Prop 8 is discriminatory, illegal and should be outlawed, they explained. Prop 8 "inflicts economic harm on workers with same-sex partners by causing them to earn less money, pay higher taxes on their wages and benefits, and receive fewer valuable benefits and protections than their counterparts with different sex partners."

And Proposition 8 is "state-sanctioned endorsement of discrimination which, in turn, legitimizes the marginalization of gay men and lesbians in the workplace.

"Consequently, Proposition 8 severely impedes our ability to represent union members and to advocate and seek justice for all workers," the unions add.

DOMA is bad enough, the unions argued in their friend-of-the-court brief against it. Prop 8 only makes things worse for gay and lesbian workers, at least in California.

The unions' DOMA brief concentrated on the economic inequality the federal law imposes on gay and lesbian couples by barring benefits to them. "DOMA, by intention and design, ensures workers with same-sex spouses earn less money, pay higher taxes on their wages and benefits, and have available fewer valuable benefits than their counterparts with different-sex spouses," the unions said.

"DOMA impermissibly relegates an entire class of working families to a lower stratum of economic security by irrationally depriving married gay and lesbian workers of employment benefits extended to their colleagues. As such, DOMA deprives these, union members and other workers of equal protection of the law."

The union leaders took the same stand in their statements.

"Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender working people face numerous inequities in the workplace and in society as they struggle to care for their families," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. "Civil unions do not guarantee the 1,138 rights, benefits and responsibilities that are triggered by the word "marriage" under federal law.

"Most important, we should respect and honor our friends, neighbors, and family members who want to take care of their families and their loved ones - whatever their sexual orientation," he added.

"Marriage equality is an economic justice issue, and a social justice issue - and that makes it a union issue," added UFCW President Joe Hansen, chair of Change To Win. "In the UFCW, we have a long, proud history of standing up for fair and equal treatment for all workers - regardless of what they look like, where they come from, what language they speak, or who they love. These values are heartfelt."

"Relationship recognition matters for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers as a basic union issue, an economic justice issue and as a social justice issue," added a statement from Pride at Work. "Same-sex couples take a unique financial hit because their relationships aren't recognized under federal law due to DOMA, and they have less ability to care for and support their families in times of need. The right to equal pay and benefits for equal work is a fundamental component of labor struggles, as is the ability to work and support one's family with dignity and respect.

Other statements supporting same-sex marriage and rights came from UAW President Bob King, Communications Workers President Larry Cohen, Unite Here, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Veda Shook, AFT President Randi Weingarten and SEIU President Mary Kay Henry.

Ms. Henry is co-founder of SEIU's Lavender Caucus, a gay and lesbian group within the international union dedicated to improving rights for LGBTQ people within unions and at the workplace.

Ms. Weingarten had been out to her family, friends, and co-workers for many years. In 2007, she came out publically.

Photo: Pride at Work Facebook page

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