Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

The Little City That Could

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

The Little City That Could

Article excerpt

It hardly seems possible that a city ordinance could persuade the world's largest airline to change its employment policy, cause the Catholic Church to recognize same-sex relationships, and effectively change the way gays and lesbians are treated around the world. Conversely, it seems amazing that one of the world's most famous cities would, by passing such a law, risk financial ruin in the event major corporations refuse to comply. But such is the situation in San Francisco--the city has initiated a standoff with some of the world's largest corporations in an attempt to make the world a fairer place for gays and lesbians.

It all started last November when city supervisors passed and Mayor Willie Brown signed a law requiring a companies and organizations doing business with the city to offer domestic-partner benefits to gays. While the law doesn't take effect until June 1, businesses whose long-term contracts are up for renewal are being told to offer such benefits or risk losing their deals. United Airlines--with a $13.4-million lease at stake--became San Francisco's first challenge in forcing compliance with the new law. Then the Catholic Church, which through Catholic Charities is the largest provider of housing services on the West Coast for people with HIV and AIDS, asked for an exemption owing to the church's doctrine against homosexual relationships. But to both of these entities and every other organization that does business with the city, Brown's message was--and remains--dear: You must comply.

"I liken this to what years ago must have been the same reaction by companies when you said, `You've got to hire women. You've got to hire people of color. You've got to extend to them equal pay,'" Brown told The Advocate in his office on the third floor of the War Memorial and Performing Arts Center in San Francisco. "Women had to file a lawsuit in this country to get comparable pay. So this nation doesn't move without some judgment being made on the public policy side. And this is one of those cases."

Brown appears to be unfazed by the huge corporate powers his city has pitted itself against. Besides United and the Catholic Church, San Francisco has contracts with a host of companies that are large enough to be household names. In enforcing the ordinance, the city puts at risk the millions of dollars in revenue it collects from leases and the $1 billion in goods and services it purchases from private businesses each year. But Brown is so confident of the city's power in this showdown that he scoffs at those who are balking at the law. "If you don't want to do the contract because there are provisions in the contract that you find offensive, don't sign the contract," the mayor says. "It's very simple. Just don't do business with the city."

Brown's take-it-or-leave-it approach could--in theory--lead to chaos in San Francisco. In the worst-case scenario, major airlines and businesses could reject the terms of the law and pull out of the city, which could ultimately hurt tourist and convention business. This would affect sales tax revenue, and San Francisco could then find itself in serious financial trouble.

But Brown says the city has a lot of leverage in this struggle. When asked whether San Francisco might face bankruptcy if major companies withdraw their business, Brown answered, "All they have to do is have a conversation with IBM. And IBM will tell you that in their total worldwide operation, it was less than 1% of the total employment force that was affected [by IBM's decision to offer domestic-partner benefits]. Now, you tell me, do you make the decision to locate someplace else based on a 1% impact? No way." The mayor adds that there is a long waiting list of companies eager to do business with San Francisco.

Four hundred companies and public organizations nationwide offer domestic-partner benefits, according to Hewitt Associates, a national benefits consulting firm. …

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