Labour unions in Wisconsin are uniting to fight a proposed ban on gay marriage and civil unions in what could become a powerful force in this November’s referendum.

According to The Associated Press, the groups, representing employees ranging from teachers to prison workers, say they are worried the amendment will take away their ability to bargain for benefits such as health insurance for the domestic partners of gay and straight employees.

The unions are making donations, organising volunteers and educating their members as part of their attempts to make Wisconsin the first state to defeat a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

AFSCME, which represents 44,000 public service and health care workers in Wisconsin, became the latest to join the cause on Monday with a strong denunciation of the ban from its political arm and a vow to get its message out, reports the AP.

The unions are underscoring the main argument made by the ban’s critics: that it is not about gay marriage, which is already illegal in Wisconsin, but that it threatens a range of legal protections for all unmarried couples. Others say those fears are overblown.

Brian Weeks, director of AFSCME’s political arm, called the amendment “an attack on labour unions’ collective bargaining rights.” He told the AP that the group’s locals representing public employees for the city of Madison and Dane County stand to lose benefits if the amendment passes.

“Backers of this ban are trying to break deals and take away rights and protections that working people have earned through good-faith negotiations,” Mr Weeks said.

That contention is hotly disputed by amendment supporters, who say gay rights activists are vastly distorting the potential impact to shift the terms of the debate.

The amendment would declare that marriage is between one man and one woman and that unmarried individuals cannot be granted a legal status similar to marriage such as civil unions pioneered by Vermont.

“It’s just inflammatory rhetoric,” said Julaine Appling, president of Vote Yes For Marriage. “This amendment isn’t going to change benefit structures that exist… It’s about whether or not we are going to live with a redefinition of marriage as something other than between a man and a woman.”

She also downplayed the significance of the unions’ positions, saying they do not speak for all of their members.

But Mike Tate, campaign manager of Fair Wisconsin, which is fighting the ban, told the AP that labour unions would help spread the group’s message that the amendment could have far-reaching effects.

“They are going to be focused on communicating to their members about why this is bad for Wisconsin, work with us on our door knocking and canvassing and some have donated to the campaign already,” he said. “I think that labour unions are a really critical part of the coalition.”

© 2006 GayWired; All Rights Reserved.