Why Union Equality Groups Matter


I’ve been reading recently how equality groups started in trade unions and the impact they can have.  This and some experience in my own union has meant that I’m becoming a bit of a fan.

In many ways equality groups sprung up because unions tended to suffer (and they still do) from mirroring some of the inequalities of society.  Not surprisingly, the upper echelons of unions were not the best at promoting equality issues despite often talking the talk.  It became necessary for groups to get together and press for change.

The effect of such self-organised groups, whether they focus on issues relating to gender, disability, age, LGBT issues, or race, is that they often cut across the union structures and press for change in ways that elevate issues to higher levels than an individual could achieve.

Having been to a number of equality forums in the last couple of years two major imperatives to the work stand out.  The first is that the groups work best when they forge links with others.  It is rare that people find themselves in an equality group in isolation.  It is probable that an individual will find themselves in 2 or more throughout their lives.  On top of this, equality groups often share concerns.  For example we know that the austerity drive in the UK is disproportionately affecting women, young people, people from black and minority ethnic communities and people with disabilities.  It surely therefore makes sense for equality groups to work together to a certain extent.

The second is that equality groups are only ever successful if they take the lead and campaign for change.  The changes might be in the workplace, the union or society at large.  This means that equality groups need to focus on meeting in order to plan actions.  Far too often they can become stale talking shops where we air our grievances and feel good that we’ve got them out in the open.  Well, we know our grievances already – what are we going to do about them?

The answer is surely in proposing real change via the usual mechanisms at our disposal.  That means writing motions and getting them through branch AGM’s and up towards relevant conferences for approval.  This is where our links with other equality groups come in.  In order to get motions passed we need to spread the word and get support from those who sympathise or have similar issues to progress.  In that way we get equality issues both up the agenda in terms of national union focus and into the consciousness of members at a local level.

The results of these strategies are to be seen all around the world.  There are many unions whose hierarchies are overwhelmingly male but whose membership base is overwhelmingly female.  In some unions the effects of Women’s Groups / Committees has been to fundamentally change the focus of the union providing benefits in the workplace via campaigns but also ensuring changes in the make up of the hierarchy itself in the longer term.

With these obvious benefits come increased membership of such groups and hopefully that produces an upward spiral of progress on equality matters.  For us to realistically challenge the norms of society we must first get our house in order.  Equality groups are an essential component in that process.

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