LGBT equality is a trade union issue like any other

In line with the International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) 2014 congress resolution “to oppose oppression and discrimination on the grounds of ... sexual orientation, gender identity” and to “encourage ITUC affiliates to defend workers suffering such discrimination”, the ITUC has endorsed a trade union charter for International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Solidarity, published by the UK’s Trades Union Congress.

Across the world, divergent paths are being taken by a minority community that was once universally oppressed, but has begun to organise and fight back in recent decades.

As a result of that campaigning, and often with the support of trade unions, equal legal rights for LGBT people have been secured in many countries, as has same-sex marriage.

At the same time, however, it remains a crime to have same-sex relationships in more than 70 countries, some of which retain the death penalty.

In Russia, new repressive laws prevent LGBT people from organising and there, and in parts of Africa, politicians are ramping up prejudice by portraying LGBT rights as a decadent foreign import.

This is a lie, of course. There have always been people in every society who are attracted to members of their own sex and there have always been people whose gender identity differs from that into which they were born.

The question is: does a healthy society respect difference, or does it try to repress it?

Trade unions have, as a fundamental principle, respect for the human rights of all people, hence the important part that unions in the UK (and in many other countries) have played in challenging discriminatory laws, prejudicial behaviour and often violent attacks against LGBT people.

We have helped to transform a public opinion that just thirty years ago was overwhelmingly hostile but is now overwhelmingly positive.

Prejudice and ignorance remain significant problems in Britain, but the unions continue to work with civil society organisations to defeat it both in the workplace, and in wider society, recognising that you cannot have one without the other.

We know, and do not shirk from the challenge, that there are also prejudiced union members.


Human rights for all

Nor are human rights secure if they exist only in some countries.

British unions have to respond to the needs of members being sent to work in countries where their relationships are illegal.

Different legal rights (where they do exist) also present problems for members and their partners.

But beyond the problems faced by our own members, we also stand up for the human rights of LGBT people to live without fear and discrimination everywhere – which means offering solidarity when it is asked for.

The TUC wrote its Charter to address two big issues: first, getting agreement that it was a trade union duty to provide solidarity; and secondly, the trickier question of how to do it.

When the Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced his anti-LGBT laws, many people called for a boycott of the Sochi winter Olympics.

But Russian LGBT organisations wanted engagement not boycott. Listening to local people is the same as listening to one’s members.

It is both a question of principle, and of doing what works. All too often, kneejerk ‘solidarity’ boycotts, or conditionality attached to aid, create a backlash, making a bad position worse.

Unions are, or should be, champions of equality: but if that does not include LGBT equality it is a hollow claim.

“An injury to one...” must mean what it says.