Peter Purton’s Union Stories

We caught up with Peter Purton, author of a new book on the history of Trades Unions and LGBT equality.

Tell us how you came to write this?
At the end of the 1990s the TUC created – under pressure from many unions – a lesbian & gay committee and annual conference, equivalent to the existing women’s and Black workers’ conferences. We won that at TUC Congress in 1997, it was set up the next year and became LGBT a couple of years later when it became fully inclusive. And I got the new job, working on both the LGBT and disability remits, because they didn’t have anyone in post in a position to organise the new activities.
The story needs to be told – especially in the current climate when so many people in our community are living in a bubble thinking they are safe from the backlash around the world, including in this country. That’s an illusion and it’s important to flag up that there are organisations on our side, and that trades unions are now champions of equality and need to be seen as crucial allies in the years ahead. That’s why the book is called Champions of Equality, not just Trades Unions and LGBT Rights.

Is it a personal telling or one with academic distance?
It’s both at the same time. Because I played a central co-ordinating role at the TUC for 18 years, it was my job to write papers for the committee, prepare conferences and act on the decisions made. So it was possible as an activist – I’ve been a gay rights ac4tivist since I came out in the 70s – to work on my own liberation agenda and to push the union movement along with it. But of course it was only possible because there were a lot of lay members who were part of these structures, who had worked to get us to where we were, who wanted to do that as well. Otherwise it wouldn’t have worked.
But it’s also a serious academic history – though I hope written in an accessible way – my publisher insisted everything I wrote was referenced to a source!

So are there stories you particularly feel chime or reflect the progress made?
At first it was a hard struggle to get trades unions to support us, but it happened quickly. The earliest action I can find by trade union members in support of a victimised gay colleague was back in 1976. Members of NALGO in Tower Hamlets in London actually voted for strike action in support of a colleague who had been victimised for owning up to having been convicted after he’d been entrapped in a public toilet by a ‘pretty policeman’.
The members of the branch, not just LGBT members, they all voted in support of strike action to support him and in consequence the employer backed down. It was an early example of solidarity, of trades unions doing just what trade unions are supposed to do and supporting colleagues who find themselves in difficulty.
Tower Hamlets was one local branch taking the decision. But in another union that became part of Unison – NUPE, a manual worker union, in 1981 a care worker – Susan Shell – was sacked for no other reason than the fact she was a lesbian. The union backed her all the way. Of course there was no legal protection so she went through the courts and they couldn’t win the case because her sacking wasn’t illegal. But in response the union executive were moved to learn why that was the case and they responded– and remember, these were straight trade union members – to press the Labour Party which didn’t have policy at the time to adopt policy, and also they decided to embark on an education programme of its own members.
The third that was especially moving for me as I was heavily involved in the mid 1980s was the crisis around AIDS. Anyone who lived through that decade will remember how horrendous the media coverage was. The “gay plague” said the Sun in 1985. The consequences for our community were traumatic, apart from the individuals facing death from a condition that at the start no one understood at all.
The popular response followed the lead of the media. In 1987 for example the first British Social Attitudes survey showed that only 11% thought it was OK to be lesbian or gay. And in that period I’ve come across numerous examples of trade unions, mostly led by straight men, acting time and time again in defence of their members who may have contracted AIDS – they didn’t understand HIV at the beginning – to defend them against the prejudice of their employers and of their fellow workers and the public – and to educate shop stewards to protect the members who found themselves in that position. A real example of unions doing what they were meant to do, again, but this time in a climate in which it was incredibly unpopular to do it, standing up for people who needed support inside the movement. And the unions have been getting stronger and getting better at doing it ever since, building over 40 years on what was done in those early years -they moved from just backing their own LGBT members to becoming true champions of LGBT equality, nationally and internationally.

How did the progress of B and T compare with the L and G?
This is a more difficult tale to untangle. I wrote the book based on talking to participants in all these struggles. You’re relying on memory and it’s a long time ago and so people are a bit hazy about when did this or that happen, but one clear picture does emerge. During the 90s a considerable number of unions had recognised a lesbian and gay structure within their own union – they had all sorts of structures. Some had reserved seats and representation in the main body of the union, some formal, some informal, some with or without input into their union’s policy making, all these things were strands and developments during the 90s.
Considerable numbers of these already included people who identified as bisexual, and people who identified as trans, and this sometimes provoked the debates: should we as lesbians and as gay men share common space with bisexuals and trans people. The two were very often debated at the same time – in some cases as a result of one individual, say, a bisexual who stood up and said “I’m bisexual and I feel I should be a part of this structure”. And many of your readers will be familiar with the responses that the bi community has become all too familiar with, like “no, this is just for lesbians and gay men, we can’t have bisexuals”. But most of the time that debate was quite quickly won once it took place.
Looking at the unions themselves, MSF – now part of Unite – they had a debate in 1990. I spoke to the member who I’ve known for many years who took the side of a bi member who had come out and said ‘I want to be included’. That forced a debate and some were against in the vote but it was carried and so from 1990 that union was inclusive.
The NUT was another lead union in becoming inclusive, without I think any particular debate in that union – I spoke to activists and union officials about their structures and it was just done, just accepted that it was an inclusive structure.
In Unison itself, that merger of several big public sector unions came about in the early 1990s and almost immediately had a debate about whether it should be just be lesbian and gay or include bi and trans people as well. It took two goes – one year they had a debate and lost it largely around the trans rights issue as an attendee stood up and said, “I’m trans but I don’t want to be in the lesbian and gay structure”. That blew it out of the water but they went back, did the campaigning and a year later they won the vote and from then on that union was inclusive.
And then the TUC itself: as I say the L&G structure started in 1998, and at that very first conference one of the motions had been written to say “lesbian, gay and bisexual” in the wording. A union that was opposed to that moved to delete those two words and there was a big debate on the conference floor. In the end the amendment was defeated but it wasn’t a positive motion to say “we will be inclusive”.
Then in 2001 four unions put forward that the remit should be explicitly extended to include bisexuals and trans people and that time it was won. A small number of unions voted against but it was overwhelming and so 2002 was our first TUC LGBT conference.
We also recognised after that, that it was an important principle to have self-organisation for all the strands within LGBT so it was agreed we should have reserved seats for bisexual and trans as well as for Black and disabled colleagues as well to make sure there was a voice and representation in the committee. Because although anyone could be elected to the committee before, you didn’t always get everyone represented as a result.
I think it reflected a reality that had already happened in the greater part of the union movement – the policy followed the fact of inclusion. If that hadn’t happened I don’t think the change would have got through, people wouldn’t have voted for it.

That LGB v LGBT debate may never end!
There will always be people who don’t want to be, and you can’t compel people to associate with a structure they don’t want to. In my experience though – having worked with numerous trans activists the clear majority have wanted to be part of the LGBT umbrella – and they have been now for a long time playing a disproportionate leadership role in those structures which is extremely heartening. And I’ve known many colleagues I worked with who were bisexual whether lay activists, rank and file activists, officers of unions and so on. The integration has been very quick.

Perhaps because the spirit of Trades Unions is being together?
Yes! In the beginning it was about having as many allies as possible in order to win anything, but now a sense of being part of one movement. The trade union movement shared with LGBT people in the past the experience of being horribly unpopular in the mainstream press and among politicians so people do tend to come together in that kind of a context.
Finally – I want people to know that this isn’t just history. The world we live in today is one where young LGBT people face disproportionate pressures (homelessness, mental health for example), and trans people in particular are under tremendous attack from people who should be on their side, attacks such as “trans women are not women”, the attacks being launched on trans people are terrifying and the movement is under attack from inside and from without.
We have the rise of far-right forces everywhere around the world, reinforced by the election of Trump of course, and a lot of the gains we have made are not necessarily safe. While it’s unlikely that any government would now go back on the laws they can go back on enforcement of them, the Equality Act being a classic case. Tie that in with the rising level of prejudice among large sections of society and you see the result in hate crime figures going up every year in recent years, against trans people particularly but also LGB people, hate crime keeps going up reflecting widespread popular prejudice that still exists among a minority of the population. So we have to be vigilant – if you don’t go forward you can go backward. But our (LGBT) movement seems to have decided that everything is fine as we can get married, we don’t need to carry on fighting – and that would be a tragic mistake.

Thank you so much for talking to us!

Champions of Equality: Trade unions and LGBT rights in Britain is available on amazon here.