UPS and the inside story of New Jersey’s failing civil unions law

We bring this post courtesy of Steven Goldsten, the Chair of
Garden State Equality. This piece is cross posted on
Steven’s blog

Caving in to massive public pressure from Garden State Equality,
Lambda Legal and other civil rights organizations, United Parcel
Service this week announced that it would give benefits to
employees in New Jersey civil unions on the same basis as the
company gives benefits to married straight employees.

Earlier this month, UPS said it would not treat civil-unioned
couples in New Jersey the same as married couples because as the
company had read the law, the New Jersey legislature did not intend
for civil-unioned couples to be considered “spouses” as straight
married couples are considered.

It’s time to share with you some inside information about the
drafting of the civil union law last December that tragically gave
UPS legal room to come up with its original interpretation.

First, make no mistake: UPS’ original decision to deny equal
benefits to civil-unioned couples in New Jersey was discriminatory,
disingenuous and mind-bogglingly dumb as a business practice.

Contrary to what UPS had implied in its earlier public positioning,
nothing in New Jersey law has ever prevented UPS, or any other
company for that matter, from offering equal benefits to same-sex
partners in our state. Even before Governor Corzine signed the
civil unions bill into law last December, New Jersey has never had
a ban on companies treating same-sex employees equally.

And UPS was not being above-board when it pointed a finger at labor
unions for being a roadblock in offering equal benefits to UPS’
same-sex employees.

The Teamsters, which UPS cited, was impeccably clear in its public
statements that it would support UPS’ giving equal benefits to
same-sex couples. Teamsters leaders made equally clear that they’d
consider such a decision to be within the scope of existing
collective bargaining agreements.

Notwithstanding all that, UPS was right on one account: The
legislature gave plenty of room to companies to interpret the civil
unions law as not viewing same-sex couples as spouses.

I know that first-hand. I was at the table at which we activists
negotiated the language of the law with legislators and their

Last December, when it became obvious the legislature would not do
the right thing and give same-sex couples the freedom to marry, we
sat down with legislative staffers 72 hours before the first
legislative hearing to get the very best civil unions bill we
could. Though legislative leaders had publicly stated their support
for marriage equality, they just didn’t want to deal with the issue
before the 2007 election year.

We knew, of course, that without the universally understood label
of “marriage,” the relationships of same-sex couples would never be
treated as equal in the real world. That, of course, is exactly
what’s happened.
But given the politics of last fall, our options were limited. So
behind the scenes, we specifically proposed that the civil unions
bill at least refer to civil-unioned couples as “spouses”
throughout the text. Guess what? The legislature said no, wanting
to take the path of least resistance.

It gets worse.

We pointed out that the term in the first draft of the bill,
“parties to a civil union,” sounded cold and clinical, and robbed
same-sex couples of the love and dignity that our relationships

After the legislature refused to call same-sex couples “spouses,”
we asked it to change the draft text from “parties to a civil
union” to “civil union couples.” In other words, we were put in the
awful position of negotiating against ourselves to propose weaker
language after weaker language.

According to one legislator, even “civil union couples” was too
politically charged. In response, a second legislator – a proponent
of marriage equality who also supported the civil unions bill as
better than nothing – said that if the civil unions bill did not
refer to same-sex partners at least as “couples,” this legislator
might withdraw support for the bill.

You mean you won’t even call these couples “couples”? this
legislator asked incredulously.

Legislative leaders finally agreed to the term “couples” in the
text of the law. In the end, the best we activists could do was to
get the legislature to sprinkle in a couple of places in the law
the idea that civil unioned couples should be treated as

But actual spouses? It never happened. It’s not the law – not by an
accidental omission, but by the legislature’s insistence throughout
the drafting process on segregating same-sex couples from straight
married couples.
Fast forward to this summer’s furor over UPS. Some elected
officials wound up protesting, How dare UPS say that civil-union
couples aren’t considered spouses in New Jersey? That’s not what we
Apparently, amnesia is an effective Band-Aid over an inconvenient

So severe is the amnesia in Trenton that a few holdouts have
expressed their upset, behind the scenes, that we’ve attacked the
failing civil unions law that they say took “courage” to pass. Have
they forgotten that the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the
legislature to pass either civil unions or marriage equality? Have
they forgotten that they chose the inadequate minimum for which
same-sex couples and their children are suffering today?

The holdouts even say they would have passed some kind of bill for
same-sex couples even there weren’t a court order.

Hello! Before the Supreme Court decision, there wasn’t an existing
bill in the legislature for either civil unions or real marriage

Thankfully, a growing number of legislators who supported civil
unions last December, but who were not ready to support real
marriage equality legislation yet, now believe the legislature
should go all the way.

These legislators are astonished at the mess the civil unions law
has created. They recognize that the state’s separate-and-unequal
civil unions law, giving same-sex couples a label inferior to
marriage, will always be an open invitation to companies to

Too many companies in New Jersey have already accepted the
invitation. As of today, Garden State Equality has heard from 216
couples across New Jersey who report that their employers are not
respecting New Jersey’s civil unions law and thus won’t provide
equal benefits to civil-unioned employees.

With the law failing 1 in every 7 civil-unioned couples, the
problem isn’t just UPS. Companies in industry after industry in New
Jersey refuse to recognize civil unions as marriage.

So now we know: A major side effect of amnesia in political circles
is inequality. And unless the legislature moves to give same-sex
and opposite-sex couples the same freedom to marry, New Jersey’s
civil unions law will be remembered as a laughingstock for the

History, at least, doesn’t have amnesia.