James Justen worked for 30 years as an autoworker in Kenosha, Wisconsin, first for American Motor Corporation and then for Chrysler, before becoming active in the struggle for equal rights and benefits for gay and lesbian employees. After paying out of pocket for his domestic partnerís health insurance, Justen, who was an active member and shop steward for United Auto Workers Local 72, decided after his retirement to fight for health benefit coverage for the domestic partners of gay and lesbian workers. Although Justen, unlike many gay auto workers, did not face serious harassment while on the job, he found the struggle for equal health benefits an uphill battle. Chrysler denied his claim for equal rights, but Justen hoped to challenge their policy by encouraging another workers to challenge the unequal treatment.Listen to Audio:
JUSTEN: I thought it was time that the auto industry administered a policy for same sex domestic partners. And I talked to my local president, announced to him, off the record. I said, “Rudy can I tell you something in confidence.” He said, “Yes.”. I said, "I’m gay and I feel that I should have coverage on my other partner.
FRANK: This is health insurance coverage?
JUSTEN: Health insurance and all the benefits afforded to heterosexuals. I had bought private coverage, and felt that was a benefit that I should have from my work if it can be afforded to heterosexuals. So I looked in the contract. They covered everything from adopted kids on down to older disabled living at home, to one that really caught me was common law marriage, recognized in the state where you live. And I thought to myself, common law marriage is nothing but a recognized, condoned heterosexual domestic partner. And Wisconsin does have a law that you’ll treat gays equally.
Chrysler denied me the coverage, we filed an appeal to Chrysler for it. Normally it was like a sixty day or thirty day answer. And at the end of the interval they sent out a letter stating when there is extenuating circumstances and special circumstances, they have the right to take additional time. I think every lawyer in that shop, in Chrysler’s office was probably looking for a precedent to get out of it. [I ] got the denial from the Chrysler Corporation and their basis was that if you recognize a marriage in the state that you reside, we’ll offer the service.
After they gave us the denial I realized, I had some second thought about it and another argument that could used with the state is that providing a recognized domestic partner benefit to a heterosexual through a common law marriage certificate is denying equal rights to a gay partnership. That may be the next trial I may set up with one of the lesbians at work, to run through the state against Chrysler if we don’t negotiate it in this contract
Source: Interviewed by Miram Frank 6/28/96
Courtesy of Miriam Frank