Fighting for Domestic Partner Benefits



Julie Robert and Helen Ho

When Michigan voters went to the polls in November 2004, they were asked to consider Proposal 2, which asked whether “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.” To most voters, Proposal 2 was about restricting the legal definition of marriage to union between a man and a woman. Many underestimated the importance of the proposal’s seemingly benign phrase, “for any purpose." . . .

When Michigan voters went to the polls in November 2004, they were asked to consider Proposal 2, which asked whether “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.” To most voters, Proposal 2 was about restricting the legal definition of marriage to union between a man and a woman. Many underestimated the importance of the proposal’s seemingly benign phrase, “for any purpose.”

Proposal 2 passed, and although supporters of the amendment insisted that it would not affect domestic partner benefits (which allow lesbian, gay, and transgender couples to receive health coverage through their partner’s benefit plans), the right to these benefits was quickly challenged in court.

LEGAL LIMBO

While lower courts upheld the provision of benefits, the Michigan Court of Appeals issued an opinion on February 1, 2007 that prevents public employers from providing benefits to anybody except the legal spouse of the employee and their dependent children.

Courts in the state of Michigan have interpreted Proposal 2 broadly. Same-sex couples in Michigan who currently receive benefits under the terms of “domestic partnership” are now in a state of legal limbo pending further court rulings.

For those working under a collective bargaining agreement, all benefits are expected to remain in place until the agreements expire. When these contracts expire, however, it will be illegal for employers to offer benefits under the rubric of domestic partnerships of any kind.

While the Graduate Employees Organization’s (GEO—the union representing graduate student employees at the University of Michigan) contract will remain in effect for another year, other unions at the university, like the Lecturers Employee Organization, are in negotiations now and have contracts that will expire this summer.

If the courts rule that same-sex domestic partner benefits must end immediately, union members and other university employees currently receiving those benefits would no longer receive health care. Furthermore, it is unclear is alternative healthcare options (e.g. COBRA coverage) will be available to the partners of those electing domestic partnership benefits.

BENEFITS FOR ALL

GEO launched a “Benefits for All” campaign in early March to responds to the current, post-Proposal 2 political climate. The campaign is pushing for a “designated beneficiaries” plan that would protect workers’ rights to health care while accommodating the law.

A designated beneficiaries plan enables employees to extend coverage to another adult and that adult’s dependent children. Instead of basing eligibility on marital status, a designated beneficiaries plan would be based on criteria including shared property, joint living (such as joint bank accounts), and shared responsibility for minors.

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Like existing benefits structures, the plan includes provisions to safeguard it against misuse. This type of plan, while new to the University of Michigan, has been used successfully by other organizations and provides benefits for all while accommodating Michigan law.

For GEO members, this would mean shared benefits would be provided based on shared living arrangements, rather than being based on legal status or sexual orientation. GEO member Sue Sierra maintains that “having a family is a personal decision that these kinds of politics shouldn’t interfere with.”

SUPPORTING EQUAL RIGHTS

GEO was one of the groups that successfully lobbied the University of Michigan to change its bylaws in 1993 to ban discrimination of any kind—including based on sexual orientation. This bylaw allowed for the implementation of same-sex domestic partner benefits in 1994.

In 2005, GEO successfully negotiated anti-discrimination language around the issues of gender identity and gender expression into its contract and got the university as a whole to do the same. The GEO contract also guaranteed benefits for transgendered individuals and their partners, regardless of the legal sex of either person.

GEO also advocated for, and later passed, a resolution at the AFT national convention that calls on AFT local unions to bargain for transgender-inclusive healthcare benefits.

For GEO’s current “Benefits for All” campaign, members of the union’s solidarity and political action committee (SPAC) are forming coalitions with other unions on campus and across the state, with faculty and staff at the University, and with community and campus groups.

A member of the SPAC committee, Kiara Vigil, says that SPAC is determined to “raise the level of public discourse surrounding [domestic partner benefits]…an important social justice issue.”

Julie Robert is the GEO Grievance Committee Chair; Helen Ho is the GEO Secretary.



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