Originally published on Advocate.com May 12 2004 12:00 AM ET
A Massachusetts labor union with roughly 6,000 members announced Friday that it will exclude married same-sex couples from receiving health and pension benefits, a move denounced by some union leaders. Trustees and administrators of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103 benefits plan issued a clarification of the phrase "dependent spouse" to mean "a person of the opposite sex." The change was announced in a letter sent to union members, which was obtained by The Boston Globe. "In light of all the changes that are coming, we just wanted to be ahead of the curve and make the clarification," administrator Russell F. Sheehan said. The six trustees of the IBEW Local 103's benefits package unanimously approved the measure at a meeting last month without considering amending the plan to include same-sex spouses, Sheehan said. "We could have, but we didn't," he said. "I'm sure we have gay members, and that's OK. They shouldn't have expected benefits if they knew their plan."
The move to deny same-sex couples the benefits that opposite-sex couples receive is legal, said Matt Giuliani, a lawyer who specializes in employee benefits. Employers and unions whose benefits plans are covered under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act can choose whether to extend benefits to same-sex spouses. "Federal law allows the union to decide who's covered and who's not," he said. The federal law preempts state law, including antidiscrimination statutes and the November ruling by Massachusetts's highest court legalizing same-sex marriage as of May 17, Giuliani said.
The move highlights a split in opinion on the same-sex marriage issue among organized labor. The Service Employees International Union has been advocating extending benefits to same-sex partners, and five SEIU locals representing about 75,000 members recently voted to extend benefits packages to same-sex spouses. Tom Barbera, vice president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and a steering committee member of the Gay and Lesbian Labor Activists Network, said Local 103's definition of a dependent spouse threatens all the work done to assure equal rights and benefits for gay and lesbian union members. "To me, it's very disappointing in this day and age, with all the progress
that's been made, that we still have people that respond in a homophobic manner," he said.
Some labor leaders fear that other unions will follow Local 103's example. "Unions are just like the general population," said Celia Wcislo, president of the SEIU Local 2020. "You have those who fall on the side of social justice, and then you have those unions who hold onto the past and