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Trade unions: Don’t do ‘corporate Pride’

DAVID BRANIFF-HERBERT, LGBT+ union organiser, argues we need to engage members, not just stamp a rainbow on our logo for a month

TRADE unions attend LGBT+ Pride marches every year and have been for well over 30 years. These contributions can be big, bright and strategic but they can also sometimes miss the point.

Make no mistake: unions are winning justice for LGBT+ workers every day. From bargaining new and improved workplace policies that go beyond the legal minimums of the Equality Act to winning cases and setting new precedents at employment tribunals — if an LGBT+ person wants justice in the workplace they’d be foolish not to be a member of a trade union.

Just look at the explosive “Sexual harassment of LGBT+ people in the workplace” Trades Union Congress report launched this Pride season which found that some seven in 10 LGBT+ workers are victims of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The extraordinarily crucial role unions have in addressing that injustice is incontrovertible — no other organisation can sit with you in a grievance procedure, except perhaps Derek from finance. But the role of trade unions in LGBT+ rights shouldn’t just be about enacting justice and historically, the unions’ greatest contribution to LGBT+ equality demonstrates that.

In the irrefutably heart-warming film Pride we see Lesbians and Gay men Support the Miners (LGSM) build a relationship with a mining community in Wales based on solidarity. The LGBT+ community bravely reaching out first. The conclusion of that act of solidarity is the National Union of Mineworkers taking part in a Pride march and then progressing LGBT+ rights through their own structures, into the TUC and then onto the Labour Party conference. The process of solidarity was truly transformative — unions themselves moving to active support of LGBT+ rights. It was a game-changer for everyone.

The NUM went much further than taking part in that Pride march — the ripples of which we still see today. That’s why trade unions this year, 33 years since those incredible events, should identify how much further they need to go.

But first we must assess and own some problems: I feel a great amount of disappointment with unions with no LGBT+ sections or a token once a year event who turn up at Pride marches. Their logo will have a rainbow next to or in it and there will be tons of merchandise and campaign leaflets. Leaflets that are usually about non-LGBT+ related or non-LGBT+ centred campaigns. This is nothing short of a corporate branding exercise — a Starbucks approach with the union being sold as “LGBT+ friendly.”

Yes, your union has priority campaigns but if a cisgender-heterosexual staffer is deciding what your pride season offer is then you are totally missing the point.

That’s harsh, I know, but think of the opportunity of engagement wasted here. The sheer amount of money and resources that could result in new or newly engaged LGBT+ members.

If unions fully understand Pride season as an opportunity to organise, engage and campaign we would see the true spirit and legacy of Pride in 1985 enacted. As unions know well, solidarity isn’t just a presence — it’s action. Let’s show our teeth.

Haven’t got any LGBT+ structures? Pride season is a great time to launch them — our community is more political with people ripe for activism.

Don’t have an LGBT+ members conference? Great time to launch a date and recruit people to a steering committee.

Not sure what to campaign about for Pride season? Don’t just pick your union’s priority campaign and stick a rainbow on it. Engage your LGBT+ membership on what the key message from the union should be. It could be a unique take on your priority campaign that resonates in a profound way.

Take your LGBT+ members’ key concerns and priorities and form a Pride season campaign group. Facilitate their campaign and enable members to become activists that lead marches and stalls themselves. This could turn into your first or rebooted LGBT+ committee.

Non-LGBT+ staff and allies are important but if they are running the show then something is fundamentally wrong.

Local union structures have an incredible opportunity here. From recruiting a branch LGBT+ officer to hosting a trades council public meeting jointly with local LGBT+ organisations — there is so much to be gained.

Communication is key and I’d urge three different tried and tested methods:

  • Not all members will be registered as LGBT+ so email everyone to start with and include a survey to identify people with a ladder of engagement on offer

  • If you have an LGBT+ membership send conversational direct emails and event notices in bulk texts — always include an action.

  • Build Whatsapp groups of LGBT+ members by geographical traits. Identify leaders on the group and move to offline activity.

  • Try social events on Friday evenings to build relationships and identify leaders — don’t be afraid to put activist engagement ladder surveys out.

The result of building engagement with LGBT+ members is, quite frankly, union renewal. Those LGBT+ officers will become branch secretaries and those pride stall organisers will become workplace reps. Unions who are already doing this are seeing their structures flourish with LGBT+ activists — NEU, GMB and Unison to name but a few.

Let us take the engagement potential of pride season and build our movement with it. After all, trade unions are LGBT+ rights organisations.

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