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Union draws line on domestic partner proposal

By Paul Snyder

A Wisconsin labor leader is wary of a Madison alderman’s proposal to require contractors on public works projects provide domestic partner benefits to employees.

Alderman Mike Verveer said the city attorney is drafting an ordinance proposal for Common Council introduction this summer. The ordinance, Verveer said, will mirror the law passed in 2008 by the Dane County Board of Supervisors requiring contractors on county projects extend benefits such as health insurance to domestic partners. The county ordinance can be applied to unmarried heterosexual or same-sex couples.

But Steve Breitlow, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin, said the county’s ordinance definition of domestic partners is too broad and could even be applied to roommates.

“And if our members in Madison are paying $6 an hour from their paycheck toward a health care plan,” Breitlow said, “why should a roommate who might be a nonunion worker benefit from that plan?”

The county’s ordinance defines a domestic partner as an unmarried adult sharing a common residence with an employee. Contractors can require employees sign a declaration of domestic partnership, according to the ordinance.

Topf Wells, chief of staff for Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, said that could mean an affidavit and proof of a relationship such as a shared checking account, lease or document showing joint ownership of property.

But Breitlow said a more detailed definition of a domestic partnership is needed. He said a city ordinance could affect unions beyond Madison.

“By law,” he said, “we’re required to offer the same benefits to everyone in the union plan.”

Plumbers Local 75, for instance, covers 14 Wisconsin counties, Breitlow said. If members working on a Madison project are eligible for domestic partner benefits, he said, federal law requires all dues-paying members of the local receive the same benefits.

Even though the Dane County ordinance has been in effect for more than a year, Breitlow said, it has had little effect on unions because the county offered only one major building project, the Badger Prairie senior living center, and that went to a nonunion contractor.

Madison, he said, tends to offer more building and roadwork.

Dane County also has offered a $4 million transfer station project at the county landfill, and an estimated $1 million refurbishing of the county’s 911 call center, Wells said. Bids for all projects, he said, remained competitive.

Madison-based Joe Daniels Construction Co. Inc., a nonunion company, already provides domestic partner benefits, said company executive Joe Daniels, so a new ordinance would not affect the contractor’s bids on city projects.

Verveer said the success of the county ordinance makes him confident a similar city ordinance would succeed.

“The only opponents the county heard from were the trades, and I don’t think the county has had any issues with its ordinance,” he said. “I can talk to them, but to me this is very simple. It’s fairness and equality. I just don’t see why this should be controversial.”

Breitlow said he wants Verveer to talk to union representatives before introducing the proposed ordinance.

“We’re not opposed to the principle of the ordinance,” Breitlow said. “We appreciate the amount of work there is in Madison. But we have to see how this is going to affect us.”

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