Champions of Equality

Issue section: 

This is a welcome account of the development of LGBT+ rights within trade unions in Britain in the last 50 years. But Champions of Equality also insists on the necessity of linking the workers movement, the left and the struggle against oppression as the key to winning real gains and reforms in society today.

Peter Purton explains the shift in general social attitudes and the resulting political gains for LGBT+ people through a detailed analysis of how LGBT+ issues were first raised, organised around, and won within the union movement.

Purton places this struggle in the daunting political context of the post-war labour movement. The link between the political left and LGBT+ liberation had been lost. Anyone looking to rebuild that tradition on the left and in the unions had to start anew.

This began with the tentative steps of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and later more radical strategies from the Gay Liberation Front that were taken up in unions. Purton mentions positively the role of the radical left including the IS (forerunners of the SWP) who were “of great assistance to fledgling LGBT trade union groups in getting established and moving to being recognised”.

The most exciting section of this book is Purton’s account of how individuals and groups of LGBT+ workers acted on those ideas to organise in the 1970s. Incredibly brave individuals “came out” or were forced out at work by bullying, discrimination and the threat of the sack. They started to organise.

Gay union members in Nalgo (forerunner of Unison) formed Nalgay to organise a national network. The Gay Teachers Group was formed in the NUT in 1974 and a successful strike was organised against the victimisation of a gay social worker in Tower Hamlets Council in 1976.

Purton details these significant advances showing how straight workers could be won to fight alongside LGBT+ workers and how the unions started to take these struggles seriously.

Purton is critical of union practices that were often slow to change. But the 1980s are presented as the “breakthrough years” where equality policies and LGBT+ representation within unions were developed.

Unions became involved significantly in Pride. The solidarity with the Miners’ Strike by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners created a powerful example of how the fight against class and oppression could be united. Purton presents this as a major influence on general union consciousness which fed into wider changes in union practices and in terms of changing Labour Party policy.

Purton rightly links the positive changes about LGBT+ people in British Social Attitudes surveys today to the fact that the support offered by unions in the 1980s and 1990s was “well ahead of public opinion” and helped change it.

Today unions have helped win greater protection for LGBT+ people at work but they are still two and a half times more likely than heterosexuals to experience harassment and bullying.

Purton ends by asking soberly whether these gains are secure in the age of Trump and the growth of the far-right in Europe. Purton argues that we can develop greater justice and equality for LGBT+ people through linking our struggles in unions with the political struggles that emerge in the future. That battle is not over.