Why Carmakers Changed Gears Over Gay Workers

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Benefits for same-sex domestic partners: They're not just for San Franciscans anymore. With a nod to a new generation of workers and an increasingly competitive labor market, America's three biggest carmakers announced Thursday they would offer comprehensive health benefits to employees' same-sex domestic partners. The kings of Detroit (Ford, GM and Chrysler) will begin offering the benefits as of August 1; various spokespeople expressed hope the move would encourage potential employees to see the once staid industry in a new light. They have good reason to hope they will stand apart: The vast majority of American companies still don't offer same-sex domestic partner benefits, and the mere mention of the concept can raise hackles, even in otherwise moderate boardrooms.

Thursday’s proposal is groundbreaking — not only because it affects the bulk of an entire industry, but because it also signals a sea change in corporate attitudes towards same-sex couples. In the end, though, like most things, it was a decision driven by economics: In a tight labor market the companies felt they could no longer afford to exclude a significant part of the labor force. And despite the thoroughly modern nature of the proposal, its fate came down to an old-fashioned cost-benefit analysis: Industry insiders reportedly weighed the damage potential of the proposal, and decided the pros outweighed any cons they might encounter. They may have been thinking back to the Southern Baptists' noisy but ultimately ineffectual boycott of Disney after that company announced similar domestic partner benefits. Disney, after all, is still alive and kicking — and making billions.