Labor unions across Minnesota are forging new and dynamic alliances in their communities to fight a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would ban same-sex marriage. Though similar anti-marriage efforts led by right-wing conservatives have been successful in 29 other states, Robert Carlbom of Minnesotans United for All Families, the umbrella organization leading efforts to defeat the ballot initiative, says that organized labor has been crucial to building a strong opposition movement in Minnesota.
“One of the key differences of how the battle is unfolding in Minnesota has been that the coalition against this amendment has united early and includes union members on our board of directors, which helps a great deal in getting our message out across the state,” he said. “Union members know how to organize. But, we still have to work very hard. It’s going to be an uphill battle. We need to be having conversations with everyone we can throughout Minnesota to make sure we win this and organized labor will be key to our success in accomplishing that.”
Last spring, with the state budget still unresolved and workers experiencing the greatest wave of unemployment in decades, some conservative state legislators led a protracted but successful drive to put the anti-marriage measure on the ballot in this year’s elections.
While it is currently illegal in Minnesota for same-sex couples to wed, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, Warren Limmer, said voters need to amend the constitution to insure against allowing “a small group of politicians or judges to define marriage” in the future. Unions were among the first groups to announce their opposition to the measure.
Some may wonder why, with the onslaught of challenges facing union members, is labor organizing to defeat this initiative? Mary de Leon Denton of the Saint Paul Teachers Federation said, “This is a question often asked of unions and the answer is a simple one. It’s all about basic human and civil rights. Contrary to the dominant narrative about unions, we have always been at the forefront, leading change to ensure human and civil rights are afforded to all, not just our members….As educators and union members, we believe strongly in justice, change and democracy.
Candace Lund of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, who is helping coordinate labor’s effort, agrees: “We have never amended our constitution to take away people’s rights, and union members recognize the inherent unfairness of this ballot question….The AFL-CIO has a long history of standing up for the civil rights of all workers, and opposes all forms of discrimination.”
Labor is viewed as a key partner in Minnesotans United for All Families, the broad coalition of civic, political and religious groups formed in response to the ant-marriage initiative. Comprising over 141 member organizations to date, the coalition has forged an otherwise unlikely alliance among Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Libertarians, Greens, atheists and religious people who oppose the discriminatory nature of the ballot initiative.
“Personally, one of the most memorable moments on this campaign was watching the AFSCME state convention in Duluth discuss this issue openly and honestly and then lead a march in support of Minnesotans United for All Families. It was extremely inspiring,” said Carlbom.
Indeed, the difficult and moving public testimony by AFSCME members at their state convention mirrors the difficult but necessary conversations that union members are having in their communities across the state.
Two AFSCME members at the convention testified that the issue was a “moral issue, not a union issue” and “politically divisive.” Yet, nearly two dozen other union members gave extremely strong and personal testimony of their own experiences with discrimination.
Eliot Seide, director of AFSCME Council 5, after providing intense and sometimes emotional testimony describing his own experience with discrimination as a Jewish American, roused members from their seats in exuberant applause as he roared, “Now why do the same people who try to take away our rights, try to eliminate our jobs, take away our right to bargain, discriminate against us for being public workers; why are they on that bill? Because, they want to divide, destroy, and distract everybody in this room. Either, we hang together, or we will certainly hang separately!”
However, defeating this amendment is certainly not without its challenges. Many of the same organizations that secured victories against same sex marriage in other states are currently aligning conservative advocacy groups in Minnesota in support of the amendment. The Catholic church has emerged as a major proponent.
However, union members are working hard to meet the challenge and insure that Minnesota is the first state to stop such an amendment. They are organizing within local unions, staffing phone banks and fostering discussions about why the amendment should be stopped.
“It frustrates me that this question is on our ballot,” says Lund. “The legislators that came into the majority in the last elections campaigned on creating jobs and improving Minnesota. Instead of passing any legislation last year that helped a single Minnesotan find a job or have more security in their present job, they pushed to put this divisive constitutional amendment on the ballot. They have the wrong priorities for our state.
“I’m counting on the voters of Minnesota to reject this amendment at the ballot box this fall, and to show these legislators the door by electing officials who will work for our state instead of trying to divide it.”
For information on participating in labor’s campaign to stop the amendment, e-mail Candace Lund.