Our history of fighting for LGBTQ+ rights

UNISON has a proud history of fighting against discrimination in the workplace. This LGBTQ+ history month we remember some struggles from the past

Screen Shot 2019-02-14 at 11.05.55Trade Unions should oppose all forms of discrimination. This is because they approach workers as workers, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or anything else. We are used to the bosses dividing workers up and pitching them against each other – for instance when underpaid female workers fight for equal wages to their male colleagues and the bosses take the pay off the men to give to the women – hoping to divide the workforce and undermine any solidarity.

In the face of this workers in a trade union should always stand together because that makes us stronger – the principle of being in a union.

We have a proud tradition of campaigning for the rights of LGBT workers.

UNISON was formed in 1993 as a merger between three other unions, NALGO, NUPE and COHSE. NALGO had one of the first self organised LGBT groups. They published a newsletter called NALGAY. Back in 1976 NALGO members in Tower Hamlets organised a walk out of the Council workforce because a social worker Ian Davies, was sacked because he was gay. Ian had been convicted after an incident in a public toilet when a young man -who turned out to be an undercover police officer – approached him for sex. This was a clear case of entrapment and the police used to do it a lot to the gay community.

After owning up to the conviction the Council said he was a ‘jeopardy to the community’ and fired him. The Employment Tribunal said that the sacking was clearly discriminatory but in those days there was no legal protection for being fired for your sexuality and the Council refused to give him his job back.

Frustrated and angry, NALGO members simply walked out of work (something you are not allowed to do today under the anti-union laws!) The strike was backed by the national union and resulted in Ian getting his job back.

The 1980s were difficult times for Lesbian and Gay workers. Another predecessor union NUPE took action when a care worker called Susan Bell was fired for being a lesbian in 1981. Again her union backed her in the campaign for her job. A member of COHSE, a hospital porter called Jamie Dunbar, was sacked for wearing a gay pride badge at work and was backed by his union. COHSE (which was a health worker union) was the first trade union to produce a pamphlet on the HIV crisis with some facts and myths to try and challenge stigma for people who had caught the virus.

So this LGBTQ+ history month, think about the importance of trade unions and our history in defending workplace rights. In work today most people would be horrified at the idea of someone being sacked for their sexual orientation but it still occasionally happens in some workplaces. Trade unions are the best way to prevent this kind of discrimination, and we fought hard for gay rights even at times when it was unpopular.

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