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How Organized Labor Helped Win Marriage Equality in Maryland and Washington--And What We Can Learn

The labor and LGBT rights movements are natural allies, and have won some key victories working together.

As a straight, black labor organizer, Ezekiel Jackson is not the conventional face of gay rights. But as a visible defender of queer justice to the non-queer population, Jackson was the ideal choice for the presidency of Marylanders for Marriage Equality, a coalition of progressive groups. Last month, MFME made Maryland the eighth state to legalize same-sex marriage, just two weeks after Washington became number seven.

“It wasn’t any struggle to get us on board,” Jackson says of his union, 1199, a local of the Service Employees International Union representing some 400,000 healthcare workers throughout the northeast. “We took a leadership role in putting together the coalition.”

Once the self-described guardian of “union power, soul power”—an ally of the Black Panthers and student New Leftists and an opponent of the Vietnam War—1199 is still a force for civil rights. This time, it joins a front of union confederates in the march for marriage equality. In fighting for “working families, not just certain families,” as Jackson put it in one campaign spot, labor is pushing the boundaries of queer politics while recharging its own power.

A black and blue rainbow in Maryland

Passing marriage equality in Maryland took a full deck of cards. First there was the inside game. MFME amplified the support of movers and shakers, including the mayor of Baltimore, a Baltimore Ravens player, the lieutenant governor, and Governor Martin O’Malley, who, after the bill narrowly failed the legislature last year, made it a legislative priority. Then there was what Kevin Nix of the Human Rights Campaign calls a “grassroots groundswell.” Unions, clergy, civil rights groups, and traditional advocacy groups like the HRC and Equality Maryland worked together to mobilize their constituencies. Given the likelihood that marriage equality will be challenged by ballot referendum in November, the ground game rolls on.

Labor has been a key source of mobilization. Unions have offered “voices other than gay voices” and “expertise in terms of politics and professional expertise in organizing,” Nix says. “The goal is to get as many folks on board with this issue, so aligning with labor helps spread the word and educate constituents and voters.”

MFME has worked most closely with SEIU Local 500, the state AFL-CIO, and 1199. Before Jackson was elected president of the coalition, 1199 sat down with the governor and other key players to determine the shape of the coalition. Since then, the union has worked communications, played a “heavy” financial role, and communicated with its members, who live predominantly in black districts in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County represented by key black legislative caucus members.

Given the public perception that blacks don’t support marriage equality—propped up by anti-gay organizations—1199’s organizing extends from its own membership to the larger black community. “Folks who hadn’t had an opportunity to talk about it spoke to members,” Jackson says. “Because our community is so heavily faith-based,” he adds, “there has been a divide,” which has been “lopsided because the side that supported [marriage equality] didn’t really have the opportunity to be vocal.”

The alternative

The fight for gay rights makes for strange bedfellows. Not-too-union-friendly corporations like Apple and Google threw hundreds of thousands of dollars against Prop 8 in California in 2008. The militantly anti-union Hyatt Corporation, “committed to being a global company that embraces and achieves diversity,” as its website reads, has sponsored and hosted the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media Awards and, in 2010, became a platinum sponsor of the International Gay Lesbian Travel Association. The Hyatt flaunts special “Pride Welcome Packages” in cities with large gay populations like San Francisco and Minneapolis. More recently, Starbucks, Microsoft, Nike, and over 100 other businesses in Washington State endorsed the marriage equality bill passed there in February.