There was no debate: TUC 2020

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) met this week to hold its annual conference. Like most meetings at the moment it was held online. Motions were moved and seconded – and passed.

Unions had been told that only if they wanted to oppose a motion would any other speakers be taken. There was no public opposition to any motion and no other speakers were taken.

There was no debate.

It is possible to make a case for operating in this way, especially this year – attitudes to motions will have been agreed by members of union executive bodies and they will, in turn, have been elected to represent their members. So they should know what their union policy is and they should know what members think. They should be able to vote with confidence on policy decisions. Shouldn’t they?

Except it can often be a very small percentage of members who make policy decisions. In theory, all members are active in their local branches, attend meetings and inform policy as it makes its way up to national bodies. In practice, this kind of mass involvement in making policy is rare or intermittent.

Still, policy must be made otherwise how can unions get on with representing their members and improving their lives? So on industrial and general questions, members may well trust their representatives to frame policy. But what happens when the policy being formed is one that is not widely known about or understood? Can it be right for unions to plough ahead and agree policy that may create conflict or concern in members’ lives without proper consultation?

Some TUC motions come from equality conferences. Such motions will have been submitted by affiliate unions then debated and amended by equality conference delegates. And so it is that the LGBT+ conference motion, (30: Gender Recognition Act reform, trans people’s rights and solidarity across the trade union movement) came to be on the agenda of this year’s TUC conference. 

Many unions will have agreed policy that supports the basic position in favour of gender self-ID (though whether all those unions can honestly say they have won this position with a majority of their members is another question). But there are other positions in that motion which will not have been existing policy positions for many unions and which will pass without proper consideration.

We highlight two.

The TUC has just agreed that concerns about women’s rights and a potential conflict with trans rights are “transphobic…insidious myths”.

The precise wording says

“the TUC, the incoming TUC LGBT+ committee and affiliates will:

“continue work to counteract the transphobic myths being perpetuated, including the insidious myths that trans rights threaten women’s safety or equality” (our emphases).

This is in spite of the fact that many people in the UK believe that the expansion of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) to allow self-ID will have a direct impact on the sex-based rights women hold under the Equality Act. To suggest these concerns are myths is a misdirection; to label them “transphobic” is wrong; to call them “insidious” is simply offensive.

At the 2018 congress, the TUC General Council asserted its commitment to sex-based rights in an ‘Explanation’ which accompanied Motion 41 (Support for gender self-declaration).

“The motion also recognises the absolute right of women to safe spaces and reaffirms the TUC’s support for the Equality Act 2010” (our emphases).

The ‘Explanation’ goes on:

“Our strength as a trade union movement depends on bringing people together to share our experiences and to build bridges, rooted in our values and real experience of people’s working lives…”

It is hard to see how women can have any confidence that either of these commitments still holds.

Additionally, the TUC has signed off a potentially libellous statement about the LGB Alliance, a reputable campaign supported by thousands of people, many of them members of TUC affiliated unions. This doesn’t feel like due diligence has been done.

There are many other contentious points in the motion but they were not debated either. You can read them for yourself here: TUC Congress 2020 Final Agenda.

Women make up more than half of the trade union movement. We are woefully underrepresented in leadership positions and are obstructed from active trade union engagement by structural sexism and misogyny in workplaces, our unions and society at large. One only has to look at the recent revelations of bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault and misogyny within the GMB (the third largest union in the country with nearly 50% female membership) to see how women can be treated in the labour movement.

Some unions tabled motions which centred women:

But the question now arises: how will the TUC take this policy on women forward when it has simultaneously dismissed the concerns many women have about legal changes to their sex-based rights as “insidious myths”?

It is one thing to make policy at a conference; it is another to win it on the ground. That takes patient, honest discussion and debate – something that is still sadly lacking from the TUC conference and the wider labour movement. Despite repeated attacks on women on social media and in real life, very few in the movement have condemned this behaviour, something the TUC claimed in 2018 it took very seriously:

“…the trade union movement opposes any violence or intimidation, bullying or disrespect, towards any group that faces discrimination, and from whatever quarter.”

Women have been key in building this movement but we have yet to receive the respect, power or space that is due to us. The TUC ignores its majority membership at its peril.

We believe the trade union movement is well-placed to improve the lives of millions of women across the UK but not if our voices are silenced and dismissed. If the TUC is serious about building the movement it will need to listen and respond to the majority of its membership and demonstrate it understands what women need by acting in our best interests.

Kiri Tunks, co-founder of WPUK

16th September 2020


We believe that it is important to share a range of viewpoints on women’s rights and advancement from different perspectives. WPUK does not necessarily agree or endorse all the views that we share.