Labor unions representing nearly 200,000 workers across Massachusetts have endorsed same-sex civil marriage in recent weeks, as the organizations lobby to expand workplace benefits for their gay and lesbian members.
With just over two weeks to go before the Legislature is scheduled to vote on a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage, the unions' stance adds a potent political force to the fractious debate, especially because roughly half of the state's 200 lawmakers have not taken a public position on the issue. "There are legislators that every year ask for our support, and there's a reciprocity there," said John J. Templeton, president of Service Employees International Union, Local 509, which includes about 7,000 state workers. "We support them, they support us. So we will be lobbying with them to give gay and lesbian people in Massachusetts all the rights and benefits they deserve."
Labor officials, hoping to consolidate their influence, have begun hashing out a strategy for the Feb. 11 vote on the proposed constitutional amendment, when activist groups from around the state and nation are expected to converge on the State House.
Union officials say that, in addition to lobbying lawmakers beforehand, many of their members will probably go to the State House for the vote, and the unions may also highlight lawmakers' stand on the gay marriage issue in their candidate report cards distributed before Election Day.
Among the opponents to gay marriage, Roman Catholic Church officials across the state are sending out 1 million letters explaining the church position, and a group called the Coalition for Marriage is lobbying to oppose gay marriage. On Sunday, rallies involving about 2,000 people took place across central and western Massachusetts decrying the Supreme Judicial Court decision and calling on lawmakers to vote in favor of the constitutional amendment, which was sponsored by Representative Philip Travis, a Rehoboth Democrat.
The list of unions supporting gay marriage includes the Massachusetts Teachers Association, with 96,000 members; the National Association of Government Employees, with 10,000 Bay State members; the Massachusetts Nurses Association, with 22,000 members; the SEIU, Local 509 and 2020, with about 21,000 members; and several smaller local and regional labor councils, such as the United Auto Workers of Massachusetts and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 1505.
Other major labor organizations -- such as the AFL-CIO of Massachusetts, an umbrella group with about 400,000 members statewide -- have not taken a position on gay marriage, but oppose the constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. In their view, the amendment could hamper collective bargaining efforts over wages and benefits.
Some political observers say that the influential power of organized labor has waned in recent years but remains crucial to many lawmakers as they seek reelection or seek higher office. And because Republican Governor Mitt Romney has pledged to recruit strong competition for the Democrat-dominated Legislature, several lawmakers who have not decided on the gay marriage issue could be strongly influenced by a union lobbying campaign.
"I think it really depends on the legislator, but especially the people aspiring to run for lieutenant governor, secretary of state, any rep looking for higher office is more vulnerable to labor's lobbying," said David Paleologos, a political science professor at Suffolk University. "Gay marriage is on their minds, and $10,000 in fund-raising and phone calls goes a long way."
Rob Gray, a Republican media consultant, agreed with Paleologos, saying that while labor's influence may be in decline, lawmakers nonetheless view unions as a force.
"Labor unions coming out in support of civil unions or gay marriage certainly makes it seem like a much more mainstream issue, especially given their blue-collar image, although I think the demographics of labor unions have shifted and their leadership has become less blue collar and more liberal," Gray said. "Perceptionwise, it's significant. . . . For certain Democratic lawmakers sitting on the fence on the issue, labor could have an impact to push them in the direction of gay marriage."
Gay rights organizers say they welcome the support of organized labor because it highlights the everyday impact of the court's decision on same-sex families.
Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus and a lobbyist for the teachers' union, said: "It's important because it takes this very volatile, hot-button issue out of the emotional realm, the religious realm, and the moral realm, and reminds legislators that we're talking about significant and important employ-
ment benefits that all workers need, whether they are gay or straight." The SJC's landmark decision Nov. 18 ruled it unconstitutional to deprive same-sex couples of civil marriage rights and gave the Legislature 180 days to act on the ruling.
Opponents are pushing a constitutional amendment that would declare marriage solely the union of a man and a woman.
Already, other major institutions across the Bay State have made their positions known on the gay marriage debate, most prominently the Archdiocese of Boston.
In addition, several out-of-state conservative and Christian groups, such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, have also pledged to help fund media and legal campaigns to overturn the court's decision and amend the constitution to ban same-sex marriages.
Union officials hope to counteract such displays by contacting lawmakers. For example, on Wednesday, the auto workers union's CAP Council, the group's political arm, wrote a letter to Democratic majority leader Salvatore DiMasi, thanking him for taking part in a recent statewide rally in support of gay marriage.
"Our union has taken this position in order to protect the civil rights of our members," the letter states. "Ending marriage discrimination is also a critical union issue."