'Outing the unions' : sexual identity, membership diversity and the British trade union movement
Recent years have seen British trade unions regain some of the membership and influence
lost during the 1980s and 1990s. During the same period, sexual orientation activism and
other 'new' social movements have become increasingly prominent on the world stage. This
thesis is an empirical examination of British unions' responses to the issues, concerns and
priorities of lesbian and gay workers seeking to further their agendas through collective
action. In response to the paucity of academic research in this area, this thesis presents an
analysis of six unions' attempts to organise and represent diverse lesbian and gay interests
within class-focused bureaucratic structures.
Establishing a context for this study, the thesis considers historical and contemporary
accounts of union organisation, the fusion of class with status-based identities and examples
of gender, 'race' and disability action within British trade unions. Through interviews with
key actors, the research uncovers the existence of separate 'safe spaces' for lesbian and gay
organisation, structures connecting action to 'mainstream' activities, and top-down
initiatives designed to promote acceptance of organisational diversity. This thesis examines
anticipated 'pockets of resistance' within the unions to sexuality action, but finds the
bureaucratic and hierarchic nature of union organisation a larger barrier to the effectiveness
of action than any internal opposition.
The need to recognise intra-group diversity and the dangers of centralised 'servicing' to the
unions' future plans are discussed, in light of contemporary trends towards workplace
organisation, partnership and the requirement to address members' heterogeneous needs, as
are the questions such an analysis raises for conceptualisations of democratic practice.
Through the examination of the unions' organisation of sexual minorities, this thesis refines
and extends Kelly's (1998) mobilisation theory and presents an alternative framework of
trade union action as 'mobilisation within mobilisation'. It closes by considering the
implications for both social movements and continued union 'renewal' of organised
labour's attempts to negotiate 'the bigger picture'.