Jeremy Bishop

Special MSM Op-Ed: Why A Labor Union Supports Gay-Marriage Rights

Filed By Jeremy Bishop | November 03, 2008 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: California, labor unions, marriage equality, Prop. 8, seiu, union

(Today, in the San Jose Mercury News one of the papers of record in California, was an op-ed that I just had to pass on. The author is Courtni Sunjoo Pugh, the Executive Director of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) California State Council. You can read it after the jump.)

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Over the last several weeks since SEIU's California state council leadership voted to contribute money to the No on 8 campaign, I've been asked by quite a few people why a labor union would get involved in the "culture war" over marriage rights for same-sex couples.

There are two underlying premises to this question: first, that unions should focus solely on "bread-and-butter" workplace issues such as health care, retirement, benefits, and wages -- and, second, that marriage equality is unrelated to these issues.

Wrong on both counts.

In California, we have a proud history of fighting the wedge politics and the division that would deny any Californian of his or her basic rights. To cite just one example, my union proudly opposed the anti-immigrant Proposition 187, which would have kicked immigrant children out of school and denied them the health care they need.

We take these strong stands because we feel compelled to support each other and our families when any of us are attacked, discriminated against, or targeted for unfair treatment.

To address the second mistaken premise: Marriage is a bread-and-butter issue, just like

First, marriage equality is an essential component of basic dignity and human rights for thousands of SEIU members and their families. Second, marriage is a bread-and-butter issue.

As a movement, labor learned a long time ago that we had to unite across our differences -- ethnic, cultural, personal, religious -- and support a vision of equality and respect for all, not just in the workplace, but in every sphere of life. We understand that where we don't have equality, we have discrimination and discrimination allows us to be divided and conquered. That's why we are committed to justice for all and equality for all.

It was a struggle to learn that lesson. Many union members felt threatened and resisted changes that labor made as it came to support the civil rights movement for racial equality, led by luminaries such as A. Phillip Randolph.

But, ultimately, union members came to the realization that letting ourselves remain divided by race was holding us back.

In California, we have a proud history of fighting the wedge politics and the division that would deny any Californian of his or her basic rights. To cite just one example, my union proudly opposed the anti-immigrant Proposition 187, which would have kicked immigrant children out of school and denied them the health care they need.

We take these strong stands because we feel compelled to support each other and our families when any of us are attacked, discriminated against, or targeted for unfair treatment.

To address the second mistaken premise: Marriage is a bread-and-butter issue, just like the issues we fight for at the bargaining table. Everything from Social Security for a surviving spouse to health benefits to tax laws are tied to marital status.

Domestic partnership maybe welcome step toward equality, but it is not equality.

Currently, for example, same-sex couples who are domestic partners and receive health benefits are taxed as if those benefits were income. If one member of a domestic partnership dies, unlike spouses, the other partner would be ineligible for Social Security benefits. These are the basic life supports we all rely on, and domestic partnership doesn't cut it.

Equality will come to California's same-sex couples only when marriage is secured in California and federal discrimination against these couples is ended.

That will never happen if Californians choose to tell our neighbors, aunts, uncles, cousins, children, friends, co-workers and fellow union members who are gay or lesbian: You are unequal and less than we are. No, it is better to allow all persons the same rights to pursue happiness and to live securely. That's what our union and our country is all about.

Courtni Sunjoo Pugh, is executive director of the SEIU California State Council. She wrote this article for the Mercury News.


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It's great to see labor getting behind this campaign.

Labor has been a force to be reckoned with this election cycle. Not nearly like in their heyday, but hopefully an Obama presidency will give them some of their power back.

Frederick Benjamin Elliott | November 4, 2008 7:15 AM

I am a gay man and a clergyman who has witnessed GLBT marriages. Part of the problem is that the civil power and the religious office have been fused in American practice. In Europe the two actions have been separated. First there is a civil action that makes the marriage a matter of law. Then there is the religious ceremony.
As I see it this separation of actions would be appropriate in American practice also. We GLBT folk could have a civil action which would guarantee all legal situations of a union. Then there would be certain denominations, like Metropolitan Community Churches and United Church of Christ which could perform the religious ceremony.
If this separation were in practice, then it might be more palatable option to the public. This division would get away from the religious baggage and still grant the legal rights that seem to be at the crux of our desires. Then the battle over the religious ceremony could take place in the various denominations.
I would advocate for two battles--first the civil, then the religious. Doing it like much of Europe would allow the division.