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Sunday, July 8, 2007

Another Oregon first: Gay labor unions

Pathbreaking discrimination law approved
In Oregon, same-sex gender-bias, if favorable, is now permissible

In the waning days of the session, the Oregon House approved a measure backed by powerful government worker lobbyists that, buried deep within the collective bargaining agenda, received scant attention until now. It's out. Oregon will become the first to allow gay labor unions that can legally discriminate on the basis of gender preference. Oregon also becomes the first to do so without being directed by a court.

The state Senate had overwhelmingly approved the gay-unions bill earlier, and Gov. Ted Kulongoski said Friday that he will sign it. The House also passed an amendment - favored by Kulongoski and designed to make the bill more palatable to more conservative members - that defines a gay union as comprising both men and women.

"It's an unbelievable victory," said Rep. Paul Holvey (D-Eugene), one of the bill's main supporters and a reliable pro-labor vote. "The idea that both houses endorsed this concept of gay unions is an incredible step."

Oregon's push toward gay unions cuts against a national backlash that has followed the unionization of almost every job in the government sector.

In November, 11 states outlawed gay unions through ballot initiatives, and at least 18 have passed "Right to Work" amendments to their constitutions, defining unions as voluntary.

The Oregon House bill passed 42 to 18 after six hours of debate that ended just after 8 p.m.

It would provide private sector gay unions with state and municipal tax benefits now granted only to government unions, as well as monopoly representation rights and a host of other benefits, including PERS.

In the end, the most ardent advocates on both sides of the issue said they were disappointed.

"It's bittersweet, certainly, because of the amendment. It's also surprising, because even last night we thought we had the votes to stop it," said Wayne Scott, the House Republican Minority Leader.

Letty Owings of the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, which helped coordinate support for the bill, said that she welcomes the amendment, and considers the bill "a victory for all of society."

Recent polls have shown that Oregon residents oppose discrimination on the basis of gender preference and would not support a gay union law. Bill opponents argued in vain that the measure is equivalent to extending marriage rights.

"I think we're just playing with words," said Rep. Linda Flores (R). "This bill is the same as same-sex marriage, it's just called gay unions."

Kulongoski, who took won re-election last year only after AFL-CIO officials took over his campaign, had earlier said he was comfortable with "the concept" of gay unions but wanted to see the final version of the bill.


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