From the TUC

Equality at work: Fair play needs strong unions

06 Jun 2014, By

There have been a number of breakthroughs for equalities in the world of sport recently; we’ve seen the appointment of the first female football manager, Helena Costa, in France -a move Arsene Wenger has publicly backed. There was the coming out of the first openly gay NFL player, Michael Sam, who emotionally embraced his boyfriend when he got the call for the St. Louis Rams, live on American television. Also in the States, we saw a lifetime ban given to Donald Sterling, the NBA La Clippers owner who was sentenced with a life suspension and a $2.5million fine for making racist comments about black basketball players, an incident even Barack Obama passed comment on.

Whilst it’s easy to distance our own lives from these ‘celebrities’, we must remember that aside from the limelight these are still workers and workplaces. Coming out as gay in the workplace, overcoming sexism and racism as well as other forms of discrimination are challenges many working people face. Luckily though they are challenges they do not have to face alone. The trade union movement has been hugely influential in making significant improvements to equality law. Equal rights have been championed by reps in the workplace, winning not just for their members but for wider society as well.

From women and equal pay, to better paternity rights and the all important adoption of the discrimination act, which protects workers against discrimination on the grounds of: age, disability, religion, gender and sexuality. Unions have played a significant part in campaigning and winning for a fairer, more equal, world. Outside the workplace unions have played a role in campaigning against the far right, they organise the Stand Up To Racism marches and work with organisations that support disabled workers- challenging ATOS and disability benefit cuts.

But trade unions don’t just make the changes at high level; they are on the ground helping workers enforce their rights on an individual level. Trade Union Equality Reps do amazing work every day, taking on cases on behalf of their members and making sure employers abide by the law. The TUC trains hundreds of reps on equality issues every year, keeping them up to date with the changes to employment law and helping them develop the skills and knowledge they need to give workers the confidence to be who they are, without fear of rejection from employers or rebuke from colleagues (not without challenge).

The WERS 2011 Survey looked at the increasing diversity of Britain’s workplaces and studied the extent to which policies on equality and diversity translate into workplace practice. They found that only one third (32%) of workplaces in 2011 had a formal strategic plan covering employee diversity, setting out objectives to be achieved. Slightly better, three-quarters (76%) of workplaces were covered by a formal written policy on equal opportunities or managing diversity. However what was significant was that these practices were almost universal in workplaces that recognise trade unions.

Given this it’s possibly no coincidence that in the recently released BIS trade union membership figures for 2013, the proportion of employees that were trade union members was highest amongst Black or Black British ethnic groups (around 29%), workers classified as disabled (14%) and, for the twelfth consecutive year, women (28%). The BIS report also found that woman in a trade union enjoyed an average wage premium of 30%. Proving unions are helping women achieve better pay and working to close the gender pay gap. Unions also secure a wage premium for young workers, for those aged 16-24 (who too often face discrimination when it comes to fair pay), the union wage premium was 38%.

Legislation has helped to improve equal opportunity at work but evidence shows unions are still key to converting policies into practice on the ground. We still have a way to go to achieving a level playing field (pun on the sport theme!) but unions are the driving force behind how we get there. Strong Collective Bargaining prevents equalities issues around pay and conditions from the start as everyone is treated equally. Where Collective Bargaining doesn’t cover the issue, we need strong unions to ensure workplace policies and procedures are not only in place but are followed. Stronger unions, mean stronger workers rights, stronger rights mean stronger protections, which translates in real life terms as workers being able to challenge unacceptable behaviour or unfair treatment, safe in the knowledge their union is by their side ready to challenge it with them.