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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Sep 25, 2012, 11:30 am

Unions in Maryland Back Marriage Equality

BY Bruce Vail

BALTIMORE -- With a historic referendum on marriage equality on the state ballot in November, Maryland labor unions are organizing in support of gay marriage and may even provide the margin for victory in a close race.

Maryland legislators passed a marriage equality law in a close vote earlier this year, but opponents quickly mobilized signatures on a petition to have the law rejected in a statewide referendum. Polling has revealed shifting public sentiment on the issue, and both sides have geared up for a serious contest.

“Labor is a very strong partner,” in the campaign to approve the law, says Kevin Nix, press secretary for Marylanders for Marriage Equality, a coalition of groups supporting the new law. Unions are currently involved in grass roots organizing, Nix says, and are expected to take a higher profile as election day gets closer. 

“The campaign will cost millions. It’s a huge effort...but I believe it will pass,” adds Fred Mason, president of Maryland State & District of Columbia AFL-CIO.

Both Nix and Mason pointed to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as the spark that ignited union support for marriage equality in the state. SEIU – especially the health care workers' local 1199SEIU – has been an early and enthusiastic supporter of the marriage equality law in Maryland, they say.

“There was a big labor rally in Annapolis back in January that concerned a bunch of different issues. But at the end, (1199SEIU President) George Gresham got up made a very strong statement in favor of marriage equality,” Nix says. “I think that really got the unions energized.”

The state AFL-CIO and SEIU are full partners in the Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition, Nix says, as is the Maryland State Education Association, an affiliate of the giant National Education Association. Smaller partners are Washington, D.C.-based UNITE HERE Local 25 and International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) Local 70.

Alyssha Jacobs (see video below) is one 1199SEIU member who has become an activist in the campaign. An employee of Johns Hopkins Hospital, Jacobs says she has been canvassing her coworkers and finds strong support for marriage equality among the rank and file.

“I feel like it effects me as a lesbian...(marriage) is a choice that is just not available to me now,” she says. The Baltimore resident says she plans to marry next year if the referendum approves the marriage equality law.

The prominence of 1199SEIU in the campaign is partially a reflection of the role of race in the electoral politics of the marriage issue, AFL-CIO’s Mason explains. Recent polls have shown most Marylanders favor marriage equality, but that black Marylanders are closely divided on the issue. Maryland’s population is about 30 percent African-American, so the largely African-American membership of 1199SEIU gives that union a special role in Maryland politics, he says.

Although proponents say that recent polling is trending in favor of the Maryland marriage equality law in general, support in the African-American community is soft. For example, a Hart Research Associates survey released last month indicated that 44 percent of African-Americans would vote in favor of the new law, compared to 45 percent who would vote against it. With a margin of error of 4.5 percent in the Hart survey, it’s anybody’s guess how the final numbers will come out on Election Day.

Mason is encouraged, however, that support has been growing in the African-American electorate. He says that polls taken early this year were even worse for marriage equality proponents, so the trend is positive. He credits President Barack Obama's May 9 announcement that he now backs marriage equality for much of the positive movement.

Nix says that the pro-marriage coalition is now poised for a final push. A victory would be historic, he says, because no marriage equality initiative has ever succeeded in a general plebiscite in any U.S. state. Similar measures are on the ballot this year in Maine, Minnesota and Washington, but Maryland would literally be the first state since its polls close earlier than those in the other states holding referenda.

The next six weeks are key, he adds, because marriage equality opponents typically reserve their strongest attacks until the final phase of the election season. The pro-equality coalition is ready for the attacks, he says, and voters will see all members of the coalition, including unions, take a higher profile role.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA's Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper's New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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