A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

How working-class LGBT people are sidelined

As working-class people we should welcome the opportunities which the equalities agenda presents for us to extend union organisation into all areas of our members' working lives - and we can do this through the proletariat struggle of the trade union movement. The concerns of women members, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered members and black and disabled members are raised within our unions, either through self-organised groups or through the mainstreaming of equality issues politically and industrially. These can be demands for campaigning such as legal rights for equality reps or equal pension rights for same-sex partners or as issues on negotiating agendas from gender segregation to discrimination in performance pay. Issues such as equal pay, work-life balance, discrimination, harassment and bullying at work are key for many of our members and form an increasing part of many union representative's activity. Over the past few decades, the pace of social change on equality issues has been massive. This change is working its way through the democracy of our trade union movement. The increasing involvement of women, black workers, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered workers and disabled workers reflects this process. We should see this fact as an opportunity to renew our democracy - to enhance and strengthen it. Strengthening our unity across gender and ethnic divides, between workers of different sexualities, of different religious affiliations, disabled or not, older and younger, strengthens our movement as a whole.

But the changes in our society are also reflected in our employers' agendas too. Increasingly, they are using equality issues to extend their influence in the workplace. As more equality laws are brought in by the Labour government, we have seen many employers make virtue out of necessity. They join in the progressive talk, while continuing to fail to deliver in the workplace. If we, as a trade union movement, do not take equality issues seriously, we cede the ground and the ideological initiative to them and their shallow commitment to equality. One of the examples of employers using equality issues for their own ends is in the area of the new rights on sexual orientation discrimination at work. Since the introduction of this anti-discrimination legislation at the end of 2003, the lobbying organisation Stonewall has worked with employers to promote equality in the workplace while sidelining trade unions. Stonewall has a project for employers called Diversity Champions and has recently signed up its 200th employer. The idea is to promote employment good practice on sexual orientation issues. But there are flaws in Stonewall's approach.

The organisation makes decisions on how to encourage good practice from the top down. It does not have democratic links to lesbian, gay and bisexual workers organised at the workplace level and cannot, unlike their union representatives, be called to account for what they do. Despite its lack of democratic structure, hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money has been given to Stonewall to run a review of the government's workplace anti-discrimination legislation. It has played a major part in encouraging a business case for equality, organising conferences with government and employer representatives. What is left out is the involvement of trade unions, which are already active on these issues. The establishment of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which, for the first time, will have enforcing power on matters of homophobic discrimination, is, in many ways, a continuation of this "quango" approach to equality. As the power of the "pink pound" - the commodification and commercialisation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered lives - becomes hegemonic in our communities, there is more reason for us, as trade unionists, to take a strong stand on the real issues that affect working people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered at work and in our communities.

The experiences of working-class lesbian, gay, bisexual and trangendered people is rarely reflected in the lifestyle politics of "pink culture." The pink press, like the straight press, is owned and run by a few rich individuals; the bars and clubs are exactly the same. We need a sense of community based on the diversity of the experiences of all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, not a monochrome model. Issues of equality should be central concerns of our trade union movement. They should be the focus of campaigning, negotiating and organising. It is the right thing to do by our members, but it is also necessary if we are to build up our trade union movement for the 21st century. If we don't act, then we will lose out where it matters - in the workplace. We do not need to give away this important area of our trade union work to employers who will not and cannot deliver for working people. We need to build up a solidarity big enough to tackle the discrimination and homophobia still present in many working people's lives.

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