Mary Larson Dennis, a social worker and member of AFSCME Local 151, remembers exactly the moment when she decided the freedom to marry wasn’t just a gay-rights issue, but a union issue as well.
It was March 2011, and Dennis, then an officer in her union, was making the rounds on a lunch break, talking to co-workers at Ramsey County about proposed cuts to the state budget. When she approached a co-worker on an elevator and asked if she had called her legislators yet, Dennis got an answer she wasn’t expecting.
“Of course I’m calling my representatives,” the co-worker told her. “Have you seen what they’re doing to marriage?”
The conversation that followed is one playing out thousands of times over in workplaces across Minnesota this year, after Republican majorities at the Legislature forced a proposed constitutional amendment limiting the right to marry onto the 2012 ballot.
“That was my co-worker looking me in the eye in the elevator and saying, ‘This is my issue,’” Dennis said. “I didn’t feel like I could look her in the eye back, as an officer of the union at that time, and say, ‘Yeah, I’m with the union and we’re not doing anything about issues that affect your family.’”
Instead, Dennis decided to take action. After consulting with other officers and union stewards, she and a handful of supporters drafted a resolution opposing any legislative attempt to limit the freedom to marry – a resolution that passed at Local 151’s next meeting.
Dennis and Local 151 may have been among the first Minnesota unions to take a stand on the marriage amendment, but several others quickly followed.
The grassroots momentum prompted several statewide union councils and federations to take up the cause of marriage equality. Dennis’ union, AFSCME Council 5, and the state’s largest labor federation, the Minnesota AFL-CIO, are among several labor organizations that have joined the coalition working to defeat the marriage amendment, Minnesotans United for All Families.
“Make no mistake – this is a labor issue,” Minnesota AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson told delegates to the federation’s convention in September. “It is because we fight for all families. It is because unions have always been at the forefront of civil rights.”
Organizing union support
Knutson and other union leaders are backing up their words with actions – and campaign cash. The state’s unions have contributed more than $35,000 to Minnesotans United, and many have sponsored member-to-member phone banks about the issue in advance of the Nov. 6 election.
The conversation about marriage rights isn’t an easy one, even among friends, family members and co-workers. Cold-calling other union members about the topic is an especially daunting task. To give their volunteers confidence, leaders of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers’ committee working to defeat the marriage amendment hosted a “conversation training” with Minnesotans United in advance of their first member-to-member phone bank.
“We learned how to have the conversation with another individual so that you’re not on top of them saying, ‘You need to vote no!’” said Mary Denton, a member of the SPFT committee. “We learned to slowly change their perspective and how they view the amendment, and we learned when to stop trying.”
Denton, Dennis and other union members working to build opposition to the marriage amendment – and grow support for marriage equality – say they focus their conversations on equal rights. As long as same-sex couples are denied the right to marry, they are denied the benefits that come with marriage – many of which are employer-provided.
“When we go to that bargaining table to negotiate a contract, right now we’re not able to represent all of our members,” Denton said. “When we are bargaining for health benefits, we can’t bargain for our LGBT membership – not for family coverage, or for their partners.”
The same applies to bereavement leave, medical leave, Social Security benefits – “all of these different things that heterosexuals just take for granted,” Denton said. “If this marriage amendment passes, it will only further inhibit our ability to represent all of our membership.”
Making a difference
For unions, taking a stand on the marriage amendment has not been without resistance, both from management in the worksite and from rank-and-file members. “To say there is not would be false,” said Tee McClenty, executive Vice President of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, another union that has been active in efforts to oppose the marriage amendment.
Still, the pushback wasn’t as stiff as McClenty and other leaders expected.
“We focused on educating the members who didn’t understand why we passed the resolution,” she said. “We told them we support all of our members, including our members in the gay community.”
Dennis, too, acknowledged “some drama” in efforts – ultimately successful – to get AFSCME Council 5 to endorse the Minnesotans United cause.
“If nobody’s trying to stop you, you’re not really making a difference,” Dennis said. “For me it comes down to an injury to one is an injury to all. If unions are about social justice, then we have to be about this.”