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Gay auto workers win health coverage for domestic partners
June 20, 2000 @ 05:00:00 am
Twinsburg, Ohio - Ask the average lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender auto worker if he or she is "out" at work and nine times out of ten the answer will be no. Ask if they have ever been harassed or discriminated ...

Ask the average lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender auto worker if he or she is "out" at work and nine times out of ten the answer will be no. Ask if they have ever been harassed or discriminated against on the job and the answer will be yes.

Their stories of abuse could fill volumes. This writer can attest to many personal experiences of verbal harassment, vandalism, sexual harassment and even death threats.

So few would have imagined that this year General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler would agree to grant health-insurance benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of their employees.

In the 1996 contract negotiations with the United Auto Workers, Chrysler (now DaimlerChrysler) absolutely refused even the most basic demand to add the words "sexual orientation" to the Equal Application clause in the national agreement.

It took a three-year struggle to get those words added to the 1999 contracts with the Big Three auto makers. It took an international campaign of faxes, letters, calls, picketing dealerships and hounding the media. The issue finally broke into the press, including even the Wall Street Journal.

This fight was led by the Campaign for Equal Rights at Chrysler and Pride At Work, the official lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender constituency group of the AFL-CIO. One leader in this campaign, Ron Woods, was a subject of an award-winning documentary, "Out At Work."

The demand for both protective language and equal benefits was brought to the 1999 bargaining convention by at least one local, Local 122 in Twinsburg, Ohio. The 1999 contract contained an agreement to set up a committee to study the feasibility of granting same-sex domestic-partner benefits, although only in the area of health care.

The agreement to provide these benefits, announced on June 8 at a joint news conference by GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler, was the outcome of this union-negotiated committee. It did not come from any genuine "commitment to diversity," as the bosses hypocritically proclaimed.

This victory follows similar ones at United Airlines and US Airways, and of course the victory in the state of Vermont.

When these rights are guaranteed in union contracts, they are safeguarded against being undone at the whim of the bosses. This was underscored recently when Exxon Corp. tried to eliminate domestic-partner benefits for all its employees. The few workers who didn't lose them were those whose unions had fought for and won them.

While the concession by the Big Three is a tremendous advance, it still falls short of full equality. It fails in the areas of bereavement leave, pension, family leave and other benefits granted to heterosexual spouses. Even the health benefits are being denied to retirees in same-sex relationships. This is the first time that retirees have not received the same improvement in the health-care package as active employees.

Some lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups, including Pride At Work, believe that partners of unmarried heterosexuals should also receive domestic-partner benefits. Of course, the inequality hits lesbian, gay, bi and trans workers the hardest, since they are denied the option of marriage.

The issue of work-place discrimination will not be fully addressed until protection is extended to transgendered workers.

The hostile work environment many lesbian, gay, bi and trans workers face won't go away overnight as a result of this new development. However, the fortress of bigotry that is the U.S. auto industry has been shaken to its foundations.

Martha Grevatt is the national secretary of Pride At Work-AFL-CIO as well as a member of the Civil Rights Committee of UAW Local 122. She has worked at DaimlerChrysler for 13 years.

- END -

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