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Union changes policy: DP benefits now equal
After two-year struggle, gay man receives deceased partner’s pension benefits

by Calla Devlin and Donald Miller

Marvin Burrows and William Swenor tying the knot in San Francisco in ’04.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) announced a victory on behalf of NCLR client Marvin Burrows, the surviving partner of William Swenor, in Burrows’ two-year struggle to receive Swenor’s pension benefits from the Industrial Employers and Distributors Association and Warehouse Union (ILWU). The ILWU informed NCLR that it had changed its policy to provide registered domestic partners with the same pension benefits as spouses. The ILWU also agreed to make this change retroactive to March 1, 2005, thereby enabling Burrows to receive his deceased partner’s pension benefits.

Burrows and Swenor had been in a committed relationship for 51 years when Swenor unexpectedly passed away in March 2005. Prior to Swenor’s death, the couple did everything within their power to demonstrate their commitment to each other, including registering as domestic partners with the state of California. The couple also married in San Francisco in February, 2004, although the California Supreme Court invalidated their marriage. Swenor had been a member of the ILWU for 35 years and had paid into the ILWU pension fund throughout that time. After Swenor’s death, Burrows submitted a claim for Swenor’s pension benefits. Despite their many years together, the ILWU initially rejected Burrows’ claim. As a result, Burrows had to leave the home that he and Swenor had shared for many years and was left completely destitute.

With the assistance of attorney Teresa S. Renaker, NCLR filed an appeal on Burrows’ behalf in March 2005 and has been advocating for a change in ILWU policies for the last two years.

“I am overwhelmed and excited that I will receive what Bill promised me in case he passed away before me,” said Burrows. “Finally our community is being recognized and my 51 years with Bill will mean something to others, not just me. I know Bill is smiling down on me today.”

“Marvin and Bill’s story is unfortunately all too common, as, like the rest of the population, a significant portion of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community grows older,” said NCLR Elder Law Project Coordinator Joyce Pierson. “For surviving heterosexual spouses, marriage automatically ensures access to pension and retirement benefits. We applaud the ILWU for doing the right thing. We should not forget, however, that the vast majority of same-sex partners in California still do not have this protection.”

Other LGBT civil rights groups also applauded ILWU’s action and Burrow’s persistance.

“Civil right victories are won by the courage of individuals. Marvin Burrows lost the love of his life and was denied relationship protections which created a devastating financial crisis for him, an all too common reality for our LGBT senior community,” said Molly McKay, the media director for Marriage Equality USA. “But Marvin took the uncommon step of bravely sharing his story, devoting his life to educating fair-minded Americans about the harms of being excluded from marriage and relationship protections in the hopes that through sharing his story, he would help ensure that no one else would have to go through what he did in the future.”

“Though many unions provide spousal benefits to same-sex couples, there are still many that do not,” said T Santora, co-president of Pride @ Work. “We are hopeful that this action will influence other unions to follow suit and ensure that their LGBT members and their families are afforded the protections that other members enjoy and ensure that Marvin’s experience becomes a part of history, not a continuing reality for others. By taking this action, the ILWU demonstrated its commitment to the union principle that an injury to one is an injury to all.”

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