Workers exchange strategies for inclusive trade unions and education systems

published 20 October 2023 updated 31 October 2023

Trade unionists gathered for the 6th Education International (EI)/Public Services International (PSI) lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT)+ Forum held on 13 October in Geneva, Switzerland, reaffirming the need for workers, including in the public education sector, to show promising practices on how trade unions are , protecting LGBT+ rights, building inclusive workplaces, unions, schools and communities, and staying united against the surge of anti-LGBT+ rhetoric, discrimination, and violence.

Opening the event on behalf of EI and PSI, EI Executive Board member Marjolaine Perreault reminded participants that, for nearly 20 years, EI and PSI have formed a strong alliance to defend the rights of LGBT+ workers, as their first joint LGBT+ Forum was held before the EI Congress organised in 2004, in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

“Around the world, many of our affiliates have taken up the duty to defend LGBT+ members,” she highlighted, adding that “there is still much work to do, as we are witnessing a globally organised rise of political leaders who fuel anti-LGBT+ rhetoric and violence by invoking a fake moral panic, using LGBT+ lives as political pawns, and in many contexts, our schools as the frontlines of this moral panic, where they seek to divide us.”

Perreault also said that “we know that as trade unionists and human rights defenders, we play a critical role in promoting inclusion and diversity in our workplaces, many of which are powerful anchors in our communities, and we play a critical role in protecting the fundamental rights of our LGBT+ members, students, and communities.”

Using the example of her country, she noted that “in some Canadian provinces, new laws have been accompanied by the dissolution of budgets intended for the training of school staff on the realities of sexual and gender diversity. In education unions, however, there is a crying desire to be better trained and equipped on these issues, in all job sectors.”

She concluded: “This forum is a great opportunity to enhance our unity, strengthen LGBT+ union networks, engage in intersectoral solidarity and collaboration, and make the human rights agenda more inclusive and visible to all. It is a time to build our capacity as an international trade union movement.”

Building inclusive unions

Agreeing that building inclusive unions means rethinking union structures, policies, practices and collective bargaining demands to reflect the diversity of the membership, Meredith Peace, President of the Victorian Branch of the Australian Education Union, explained that “it is important to build strong policies in our unions that reflect the needs and beliefs and values of our members, especially our LGBT+ members."

Linda Bogle-Mienzer, from the Bermuda Public Services Union, highlighted how “statistically, workers spend more time at work, than at home, and if work is not a safe space, then we've spent hours of lives with people who say we cannot be ourselves. As unions are critical in transforming workplaces into safe spaces, we first must make unions safe.”

Fighting the anti-LGBT+ backlash

In a world of multiple crises, people’s anxieties and fears create opportunities for purveyors of hate. During a panel discussion examining the global rise of these ideologies and movements in our workplaces and society, Michael Barry of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) stressed the situation in the United States of America, and how collaboration is key to fight censorship and to promote LGBT+ rights.

“AFT has taken a strong stand against ‘Don't say gay’ bills,” he said. “These bills try to censor teachers and are marginalising children and their families. Teachers feel threatened, but collaboration is power and unions must collaborate!”

Matilda Zani, representing the Independent Trade Union of Education of Albania (SPASH-ITUEA) explained how her union organised a workshop reaffirming that LGBT+ rights are human rights:

“Moral and physical harassment, stigma attached to LGBT+ people have an impact on workers' mental health and well-being. Our work is to raise awareness, to fight social and economic discrimination. My union organised a workshop on those issues, stressing that LGBT+ rights are human rights.”

Queering public services

Another panel debated about the fact that LGBT+ public sector workers are workers at the forefront of the movement to design and deliver inclusive, responsive and transformative public services.

Among other topics, it tried to answer the following question: Which type of developments in the education and cultural sectors can educators and their unions initiate to support LGBT+ people?

Atsushi Takehana of the Japan Teachers’ Union insisted that “when I teach, I put emphasis on human rights education, part of the Japanese school curriculum. There is discrimination against minority groups in Japan. To my students, I say: ‘In your classroom, there is always a member of minority groups, starting with myself.’”

For Justine Mercer, National President of the University and College Union (UCU) in the United Kingdom, her union “has a proud history of fighting for LGBT+ rights. We have an LGBT+ representative on our board and an LGBT+ Committee. We also have an LGBT+ Charter to counter the negative attacks and attention from press targeting LGBT+ people in recent years.”

Another great example of successful union training on LGBT+ rights and on how to make LGBT+ people feel acknowledged and safe within their unions was reported by Pau Farcia Orritz of the Spanish Federación de Enseñanza de Comisiones Obreras (FECCOO): “We should not lose sight of the intersectional approach. There is no pride without feminism, there is no feminism without pride.”

A few days after the EI/PSI LGBT+ Forum, the PSI Congress adopted the amendment #28 of the plan of action calling on trade unions “to establish a global LGBTQA+ coordinating committee, meeting virtually on a regular basis, at least once every six months, and including regional coordinators elected from among the members of the regional coordinating committees. The global coordinating committee will nominate a liaison person and an observer to the PSI Global Executive Board.”

The EI policy aiming to promote inclusion and diversity in schools, and protect the fundamental rights of LGBT+ union members and students is available here. EI and PSI proudly work with other global union federations to foster the rights of LGBT+ rights in the world of work, and more information can be found here.