AFL-CIO, Change to Win, go to bat for gay marriage

The AFL-CIO and Change to Win, the nation’s two largest labor federations filed a brief yesterday asking the U.S. Court of Appeals to uphold a lower court ruling that the so-called Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.

The DOMA, which became law in 1996, bars federal benefits for same sex couples.

The independent National Education Association joined the two labor federations in the filing which says the DOMA. “by intention and design, ensures that workers with same-sex spouses earn less money, are taxed more on their wages and benefits, and have available to them fewer valuable benefits and less economic security than their counterparts with different-sex spouses.”

Also yesterday, more than 130 House Democrats filed a similar brief with the Court of Appeals. The court is expected to hear the case in September.

The move is seen as a dramatic ramping up by the nation’s labor movement of its efforts in recent years to win equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) people.

In a 2005 statement on a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would have banned same sex marriage and denied other rights to LGBT people, the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council declared that “families come in all shapes and sizes. As our families change, our union contracts also change. For more than a generation, unions have negotiated domestic partner benefits for the workers they represent, which provide crucial access to health care, family and medical leave and other benefits for our heterosexual families and seniors as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families.”

The anti-gay amendment that labor battled back in 2005 had the support of right wing groups across the country. In its opposition to the amendment the AFL-CIO noted that in its 214-year history, the U.S. Constitution has been amended only 18 times to grant basic civil rights “but we never amended the Constitution to discriminate against any group of people denying them rights.”

The brief makes a powerful argument against the DOMA, noting that the law is unconstitutional because it puts workers into separate groups and allows discrimination against workers on the basis of the category into which it places them.

The brief notes that DOMA prevents or significantly restricts access to spousal health benefits by workers married to same sex partners.

The court filing by the unions also notes that DOMA denies to same-sex couples benefits provided to other married couples when a worker suffers a workplace injury, or otherwise becomes ill or infirm,

A third form of discrimination happens under DOMA, the briefing notes, because the law impinges on the ability of a whole class of workers to plan for retirement by mandating a complete denial of Social Security benefits to same-sex spouses of covered workers, and precludes same-sex spouses from receiving the benefits of tax provisions intended to incentivize savings in private retirement accounts.

A fourth big argument in the brief filed by the unions tackles the area of immigrant rights. The unions argue that DOMA forces immigration and naturalization laws to be administered differently for different classes of workers by making it more difficult for married same-sex couples who are immigrants seeking to work and remain lawfully in the United States than it does for heterosexual couples.

Photo: We are one, from the Pride at Work Facebook page.


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.