By Ann Orr
It was the International Workers’ of the World (IWW or “Wobblies”) who first used the slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all”. It encapsulated the underpinning principle that led the IWW to develop groundbreaking work. Against significant opposition from the other parts of the workers’ movement, the IWW focused on organising workers in various sectors including those described as “unskilled”. It was a development of historic proportions for the international workers’ movement.
The slogan remains as vital for the workers’ and trade union movement today as it was when the IWW was founded in 1905. It underlines that any injury, attack or injustice on any part of the working class is a collective concern for all of us – and one that must be challenged collectively. It points a direction forward for working-class people in the face of the ongoing divide and rule tactics of the bosses. Today, the attempts to divide are particularly evident with the attack on trans rights. The trade union movement must respond to this through united actions and a bold defence of all workers. That in this case means challenging transphobic that is being pushed by the Tories, by the bosses and in the press as well as standing up against blatant attacks. These attacks are evident in the Torie’s unprecedented move to block Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform, decisions for example by British Cycling to ban trans women from elite women’s cycling, the over 400 bills brought to in different States across the USA so far this year alone to restrict and curtain trans rights.
Trade unions: fighting for ALL workers
Whether in discussions about sports or access to toilet facilities the basis for transphobic arguments reflect one of the following erroneous views: that trans women are somehow not women or “lesser” than other women and/or that trans people pose a danger to cis women. The latter in particular is often consciously connected to people’s genuine concerns about gender violence but seeks to turn these into a false direction and away from understanding the roots of gender violence. These lie in the very nature of capitalist society that is divisive, harmful, violent and pushes outdated and dangerous views including gender norms and misogyny. In reality trans people are four times as likely to experience gender violence!
The workers’ movement must be welcoming and supportive to all members. It must boldly stand up for the rights of ALL workers – inside workplaces and outside of them. Almost 50% of trans people in the UK report experiencing bullying or transphobia at work; reported transphobic hate crimes are increasing in Northern Ireland as elsewhere; and we have seen the heinous murder of teenager Brianna Ghey. Transphobic rhetoric is not just a narrative – it has real consequences for people’s health and wellbeing. Open and engaging in discussions is vital for this but we do not accept “discussions” that seek to question the existence of or the legitimacy of the existence of trans people – that is simply not up for debate.
Learning from our history: unions fighting oppression
There have been many occasions where the trade union movement has been slow to act and realise the role it has to challenge any form of oppression or injustice – both in and outside of workplaces. While today it is no longer controversial to say that women workers must be organised in trade unions, this was not always the case. Take the British trade union movement for instance. Even though women workers in the textile industry were trailblazers in the early 1800s and it was again a strike of women workers in the Bryant and May factory in Bow in 1888 that heralded the beginning of “new (trade) unionism”, even in the late 1960s women workers in the Dagenham Ford factory had to fight for the TUC to seriously take on their struggle for equal pay! As recently as 2020 a report branded the GMB union as “institutionally sexist” illustrating the barriers women continue to face to their full participation in the trade union movement.
Also when it comes to challenging racism, the trade union movement was not only deeply insufficient but at times also actively reflecting backward and divisive ideas. In 1974 a strike of predominantly Asian workers (many of whom were women) occurred at Imperial Typewriters in Leicester. The trade union TGWU not only refused to back the strike but there was collusion between management, white workers and local union officials to involve the fascist National Front – who physically attacked strikers. In large part thanks to support from the wider union movement, the strike was victorious but clearly the union was on the wrong side of this issue! By the late 1970s there are examples we can point to where the wider trade union movement took a principled stance against racist division and in favour of working-class solidarity and unity. This includes a strike at the photo processing plant Grunwick – a long dispute that was supported by workers in many other sectors.
The actions of trade unionists after the horrific racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager in London, in 1993. This murder exposed the extent of racism including in the state. Speaking at a TUC event in 2022 Stephen Lawrence’s father said: “I remember meeting a group of trade unionists near Vauxhall Bridge. The small group told me they were going to help. And they did. The action and support of Black workers and groups in trade unions immensely helped pull the national focus on our campaign. They helped in financially sustaining it. Today, I can proudly say that trade unionists were critical in pushing the campaign seeking justice for Stephen Lawrence – through their unions, workplaces and communities.” This gives a glimpse of what is possible when the trade union movement takes a united and campaigning approach.
Another giant of the socialist and trade union movement, Eleanor Marx, when discussing the challenge we face to fight for the liberation of the entire working-class from the oppression and exploitation of capitalism stated that this task “will look less and less difficult in proportion as the women and especially the men learn to see what strength lies in the unification of all workers”. She was talking specifically about the entire working-class having to take on the struggle against the oppression of women but the underlying principle applies to all forms of oppression and certainly to the struggle for trans liberation today: our unity and solidarity is our strength. More equality and rights for one section of working-class people does not harm another section. When we actively build that unity workers can not only challenge but eradicate injustice, exploitation and oppression. It is that future that we fight for and the union movement needs to be part of that struggle.
What the union movement can do now
It is imperative that the trade union movement learns from past mistakes and plays a more active part in challenging oppression now. In the same way as women’s rights are workers’ rights and migrant rights are workers’ rights – trans rights are workers’ rights. And the trade union movement should be leading from the front, not scrambling to catch up as has been the case in terms of challenging racism and sexism. Steps such as the TUC taskforce against transphobia are important and motions at union conferences and branches in support of LGBTQ rights and trans rights in particular can be helpful steps forward. The best of the campaigning approach adopted by unions on issues of anti-racism and anti-sexism work must also be applied including mobilising trade union members to stand up against transphobia. This for example was done in May 2023 in Portrush when trade union activists were part of mobilisations against the far-right as covered elsewhere in this paper.
Unions must also call out the false and harmful narrative in relation to gender violence and campaign for the concrete action that is needed to challenge and ultimately to eradicate gender violence including fully funded support services for anyone impacted; an end to precarious housing and working conditions and to challenge the underlying attitudes that allow gender violence to happen in the first place. Initiatives like the joint charter against sexual harassment and abuse in hospitality by Unite Hospitality and ROSA, the socialist feminist movement are also important examples of what practically can be done. In conclusion, building active movements inside workplaces and outside of them that unite workers of all genders is essential to fighting transphobia and this is what Socialist Party members in the trade union movement argue for and seek to achieve. If you would like to discuss this with us, get in touch today.