“We all know how this movie is going to end”

This article was sent to me by a friend who was fired from a Corporate America job. He had a Christian conservative kind of boss who literally sat in his office reading the Bible during the day. My friend had worked extremely hard for this company over the years, and had been very popular among his colleagues. But when it became clear that he was going to be terminated, he became a non-person: people who he had counted among his friends all of a sudden just couldn’t even SEE him any more!

This is how it is all going to happen. One of these days, one of these corporate executives is going to have the right entree to the right judge–or whatever variant it takes. That–COUPLED WITH–all of the hard work by the LGBT organizations AND all of the grassroots-level work by “we the [queer] people” AND the support and work of all the good PFLAG folks and other allies who love us… It apparently isn’t going to be due to the work and support of the elected officials who are members of the Democratic Party; to them we seem to be just as invisible as was my friend at the corporate job.

Well, anyway, as Robert Haas is quoted in the article below, “We all know how this movie is going to end. It is just a matter of getting there.”

Levi’s was ahead of its time on domestic partner benefits for employees
C.W. Nevius
Thursday, July 6, 2006

If you’d like to get a rip-roaring argument started, bring up same-sex marriage. It is a hot-button wedge issue, an article of faith for both conservatives and liberals. It seems there is no middle ground.

But quietly and behind the scenes, objections to same-sex relationships are steadily being washed away in the business world. And not only is hardly anyone upset about the change, companies are lining up to make the switch.

Last week, the nation’s largest equal rights organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people released a report showing that, for the first time, more than 50 percent of the Fortune 500 countries in the United States offer domestic partner benefits.

It works out to 253 of the 500 companies that give essentially the same health care or other benefits to domestic partners as to married couples. If that number comes as a surprise, you are not alone.

“I am amazed at that figure,” says Gillian Lester, a professor of law at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall. “I really find that quite striking.”

No kidding. Remember this isn’t the gay and lesbian bakery down the street. This is Charles Schwab Inc., 3M and Home Depot. Why are they doing it?

“I think,” says Lester, “it is good business. And I think the other 50 percent ought to be paying attention.”

We can argue the effects and causes for days, but there is no debate about the direction this trend is headed. In 1999, a Human Rights Campaign report shows, just 96 Fortune 500 companies had domestic partner benefits. Four years later, that total had doubled. In the last two years, more than 30 of the nation’s top companies have signed on.

That’s quite a change from 1992, when exactly one of the Fortune 500 offered benefits. That company was San Francisco’s Levi Strauss & Co. Robert Haas, the former CEO, and the great-great-grandnephew of the original Levi Strauss, recalls when the decision was made.
“When you’re a pioneer in whatever you do, there is an element of uncertainty,” says Haas, who is now the nonexecutive chairman of the board of directors. “Why hadn’t other companies done this? Do they know more than we do?”

Probably not. San Francisco gave some employers a nudge in 1997 when the city became the first in the nation to require companies doing business with the city to provide benefits to unmarried partners. Since then, several other cities have done the same.

Levi’s learned there were several pluses. First, the benefits improved relations with its workforce, which included many unmarried heterosexual couples in a committed relationship.

And then there was the cash. The Human Rights Campaign estimates that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender consumers represent a market of some $641 billion. Other firms began to pay attention. E.J. Bernacki, a spokesman for Levi’s, says the company finally had to put together a benefits folder to send out to companies interested in setting up their own programs.

Kevin Carroll, a senior manager, worked at Target before he came to Levi’s. Although Target now has a domestic partner plan, it didn’t when Carroll left.

“It was just so amazing when I came to Levi’s,” Carroll says. “To be handed a welcome kit—here are all the benefits—was incredible.”

And that’s when there was an unintended result. As more and more companies began to incorporate benefit programs, workers tended to feel accepted and comfortable in the workplace.

“My partner and I got married in San Francisco (during Mayor Gavin Newsom’s City Hall same-sex weddings),” Carroll says. “And to be able to tell everyone at work, right up to the chairman of the board, was just amazing.”

Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese says the result was that more of the workers began to come “out.” And, for the first time in their lives, some straight Americans realized they worked with someone who was gay or lesbian.

“They were saying, ‘I don’t know how I feel about gay marriage,’” says Solmonese, “‘but I know how I feel about that gay or lesbian person who shows up at work every day.’ And they were genuinely changed.”

Something has obviously happened.

“Clearly, in the last 10 to 15 years we are witnessing a sea change in the perception of gay relationships and partnerships,” says Boalt Hall’s Lester.

Solmonese says there was often talk about the political far right, and how it was able to mobilize its base in churches. Where, members of the gay community wondered, could they gather people to discuss their side of the issue?

“The answer,” he says, “is corporate America. That is a place where people congregate and where we are making real strides.”

It would have been hard to predict that back in 1992 when Haas helped spearhead the first domestic partners package for a Fortune 500 company. But he’s as confident now as he was then.

“You know how we go to the theater and sit down, even when we know how the movie will end?” Haas says. “We all know how this movie is going to end. It is just a matter of getting there.”

C.W. Nevius’ column appears Thursdays and Saturdays in the Bay Area section. His blog C.W. Nevius.blog can be found at SFGate.com. E-mail him at cwnevius@sfchronicle.com.

Page B – 1

URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2006/07/06/BAGE4JQEKP1.DTL
©2006 San Francisco Chronicle

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