Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Domestic Partner Benefits Approved While Public Sector Unions Face Givebacks

By Martha Grevatt
Published Mar 13, 2011 10:06 PM

In 2004, as part of a right-wing appeal to bigotry designed to get President George W. Bush re-elected, voters were bombarded with rhetoric against same-sex marriage. Michigan, Ohio and other states passed mini-DOMAs — modeling the federal “Defense of Marriage Act” in defining marriage as a union of “one man and one woman.”

It was outrageous enough to amend state constitutions to deny such a basic civil right to the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer communities, but six years later the right wing continues to push for the broadest possible interpretation. Same-sex and unmarried opposite-sex couples are being denied a whole host of rights that might otherwise be afforded to “domestic partners.”

Everything from equal access to campus housing to protection for victims of domestic violence has come under the scrutiny of groups such as the American Family Association. In Michigan, they cite the actual language of the state’s “Marriage Protection Amendment,” which states, “The union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.” (legislature.mi.gov)

During the 2004 campaign the AFA argued that voters didn’t have to worry about anyone losing health benefits because the MPA was a “marriage only” amendment. They made an about-face after they won its passage, however, using the words “for any purpose” in an amicus brief supporting the governor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm, against the Michigan chapter of Pride at Work.

The ACLU had filed a lawsuit in 2005 on behalf of Pride at Work, seeking a declaratory ruling that the MPA does not prohibit public employers from providing health benefits to same-sex domestic partners. These benefits had been negotiated for state government and university employees by their unions the year before.

The case proceeded through the state courts, some ruling in favor of LGBTQ workers and some against, until in 2008 the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the “for any purpose” wording meant that providing equal benefits violated the 2004 amendment. The ruling was a serious setback for the LGBTQ community.

Now the Michigan Civil Service Commission has not only restored but expanded those benefits with a 3-1 decision allowing coverage for one “other eligible adult” (OEA) — any adult, other than tenants or live-in aids, living with the worker for more than a year and who intends to continue living with the worker. Dependents of the OEA are also covered. Some communities and universities had already been providing OEA or “household member” coverage; they changed the language from “domestic partner” in anticipation of the 2008 ruling.

The right wing is fuming over having to cover even more uninsured people. They have to acknowledge that what they consider a subverting of the MPA is perfectly constitutional — in fact, they are using it to argue in other states that passing more mini-DOMAs won’t cost anyone their health care. At present 27 states have passed anti-marriage amendments, but a growing number of states allow or recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions.

In Ohio — where the Supreme Court ruled that providing domestic partner benefits did not violate the state’s anti-marriage amendment — anti-union and anti-LGBTQ lawmakers have sneaked into a Wisconsin-style budget-cutting bill, SB5, a line defining marriage as being between “one man and one woman.” To insert this into a bill in a state where same-sex marriage is already illegal can mean only one thing. “This bill will eliminate all domestic partnership benefits, straight or gay, besides attacking unions,” stated Mark Szabo, who organized a demonstration in Cleveland against the sneaky bigots. “Basically we are trying to protect what small rights we have.”

In Michigan, the latest tactic by the right wing is to make an issue of the cost of providing OEA benefits. The new governor, Republican Rick Snyder, said that while the current OEA language is clearly legal, he is “frustrated and disappointed” about having to provide health care to uninsured adults at a possible cost of almost $6 million. That amount is roughly three-thousandths of 1 percent of the state deficit! Some right-wing pundits are calling for the abolition of the Civil Service Commission, established in 1908 by constitutional amendment to administer the providing of civil and human services.

By ranting against the negligible cost, Snyder is consciously attempting to pit union workers — whose wages, pensions, and benefits are in danger — against the LGBTQ community. Snyder despises both.

Unfortunately, the Michigan State Employees Association, citing the 3 percent pay cut taken by its members, bought into the propaganda and stated its opposition to “extra benefits.” More importantly, though, the two major unions for state workers — the Service Employees union and United Auto Workers Local 6000 — support equal benefits.

Responding to the latest threat by the Republican-dominated state Legislature to overturn the commission’s directive, Local 6000 legislative liaison Ray Holman stated, “This was negotiated. ... It’s not really appropriate for the legislature to try to overturn the civil service commission.” (Between the Lines, March 3)

Tens of thousands of union workers have been protesting Snyder’s union-busting “budget repair” plan. They must not let themselves get sidetracked by scapegoating or bigotry, but should stand with all workers and oppressed communities,which are in the crosshairs of the ruling class.
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