Trade unions: Is solidarity really forever?

Annette Pryce analyses the progress of the trade union movement in light of some negative reactions to the reform of the Gender Recognition Act.


I’m a 39 year-old cis-gender lesbian, with privilege. I am white, able-bodied, well educated, employed, and I’m out at work, out to the students I teach and currently the LGBT+ Executive member of the National Union of Teachers. I recognise that my various privileges gives me access to a voice that others don’t have.

Being a member of a trade union is meant to be a privilege as well; for those who don’t rubbish the idea of privilege being more than class, there has been a multitude of great things done by trade unions in the last 30 years or so.

They fought for workers’ rights, up to a point until they realised that their policies needed to change with the law, so they did. They enshrined LGBTQ+ rights into the labour movement in the 1980s with the help of the National Union of Mineworkers, supported by LGSM, after a period of hostility.

They fought for pension rights here and same-sex marriage in Ireland. They’ve done lots of good things at a national level recently as organisations thanks to changes in the law, but there is something still very wrong with the trade union movement in the year 2017, and this comes down to a continuing lack of awareness around intersectionality within our own LGBTQ+ communities and within the trade union community. There is almost a blanket refusal to look at intersecting oppressions because it is too hard for the mostly white, mostly cis-het, able-bodied men who run unions to comprehend.

According to Audre Lorde, ‘always focusing on what’s wrong outside of your organisations and campaigns means that problematic power structures in our own movements often go unscrutinised.’ This is never truer than for the trade union movement; as bureaucratic structures take over and the politics of most unions swings over to the left, you begin to wonder why we haven’t made more progress. In an organisation that is meant to bring people out of the cycle of oppression, because an ‘injury to one is an injury to all’, you need to question: which ‘one’ they are talking about?

You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an activist who is ready to fight the good fight on anti-racism and class wars with the Tories. Both honourable causes. You’d have to look a bit harder to find activists who wanted to take on transphobia.

There is almost a blanket refusal to look at intersecting oppressions because it is too hard for the mostly white, mostly cis-het, able-bodied men who run unions to comprehend.

With regards to the Gender Recognition Act reforms, those who oppose it tend to make lots of references to anecdotes from the US and Canada, soundbites from the right-wing press and other alt-right sources. A level of hysteria over what will happen to women-only spaces begins to emerge, despite nothing really having happened in the Republic of Ireland, where they’ve had a similar law for two years. There haven’t been swathes of cis-het men, the real culprits here, running into women’s bathrooms declaring they are women; in fact, I think they’d probabaly get the piss taken out of them if they did. They don’t need a change in the law to be idiots, and they will no doubt be committing a crime just by making a false declaration.

This hysteria has coincided in the past week with the announcement that the Gender Recogniton Act is finally going to be updated after consultation. Finally, my trans friends and colleagues won’t have to wade through a torturous and traumatic process to get a Gender Recognition Certificate. Because that’s all it does, essentially.

Then there are those who call themselves trade unionists, calling into question the rights of their trans members, which brings me to Paul Embery of the FBU, who has taken it upon himself to tell trans people everywhere that their identity is a lie and that they don’t really exist.

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It’s more than a little disappointing to see other trade unionists both on and off Twitter defend him; one wonders if he’d get the same praise if he was a right-wing evangelist shouting ‘God Hates Fags’. I suspect not.

His comments play into the anti-trans narrative that somehow ‘trans women are not women’. A denial of someone’s existence is the core of oppression. Isn’t there a dictator in Chechnya right now denying the existence of gay people and then torturing them in modern concentration camps?

There haven’t been swathes of cis-het men, the real culprits here, running into womens bathrooms declaring they are women; in fact, I think they’d probabaly get the piss taken out of them if they did.

Denying someone’s existence allows people like Paul to deny them their human rights. Because they are human, and the outrageously bad example of trade unionism displayed above brings bloody shame to the movement that claims an injury to one is an injury to all.

I suspect he won’t change his ways, but the movement around him needs to; otherwise, the trade union movement has gone backwards, and that isn’t just bad for trans workers, that’s bad for everyone.

Follow Annette on twitter (@lgbtexec)

One thought on “Trade unions: Is solidarity really forever?

  1. Anti-trans seems to be flavour of the month at the moment. It’s frightening that those in power seem to think this is OK.

    The “just expressing an opinion” argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either (I’ve heard people use excuses along these lines) – there’s a level of responsibility that comes with any position of power because others see it as legitimising their own prejudices.

    Liked by 1 person

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