Trade Union banners on Newcastle Pride. Photo: Elaine Brunskill
Trade Union banners on Newcastle Pride. Photo: Elaine Brunskill

Adam Harmsworth, Napo executive and delegate to TUC LGBT+ Conference (personal capacity)

The important steps made so far on transgender rights in Britain are the result of decades of courageous struggle by trans people and their supporters. It has taken a great deal of effort to have trans people recognised in law but now a challenge is needed to the rise in attacks on trans people’s rights and existence.

The trade unions must take a leading role, and almost every trade union in the UK is discussing, in some capacity, how to advance the rights of trans people. This is a fight for all the rights, resources, and public services needed for trans and non-binary people to live free from discrimination, poverty, and oppression. This is part of the fight for all of us – against the cost-of-living crisis and to get the Tories out!

Trans people, especially in the working class, still face great difficulties as a result of transphobia, including direct threats to their lives and safety. Stonewall’s “LGBT in Britain: Work Report” states that one in eight trans people have been physically attacked by customers or colleagues in the last year because of being trans.

The shocking murder of trans teenager Brianna Ghey in February has been linked to the rise in transphobic news stories – appearing sometimes daily in right-wing newspapers. The Tories want to use a ‘culture war’ to distract workers from the horrendous policies of their government, and from growing crises in capitalism unable to offer a decent future.

The rise in attacks on trans people is not separate to wider homophobia. The origins of these forms of bigotry lie in attempts by big business bosses, the capitalist class, to maintain their system based on economic exploitation of the majority and the private ownership of the means of production by a handful. They have always sought to divide the working class along lines of gender, sexuality, race, for example, to try to prevent collective action, including the fight for a socialist alternative.

It is no accident that, with the strike wave bringing hundreds of thousands of workers together on picket lines, the Tories are trying to use transphobia to sow division. Defending trans rights is therefore a task for the whole trade union movement. Many trade union bodies have been responding to the rise in transphobia with a wave of motions expressing support for the trans community and declarations of solidarity.

The trade unions, as main organisations of the working class, have a central role in standing up for oppressed sections of our class. It is here that over six million workers in Britain come together to fight for a better future.

The ongoing strike wave has demonstrated the power unions have to push for inflation-proof pay rises. Alongside mass strike action, there has been a new wave of workers joining unions and starting to become actively involved. This is absolutely crucial for fighting for trans rights in the workplaces and in wider society.

Opposing transphobia, especially from individual bosses, means union shop stewards and activists campaigning in the workplaces. Because they bring together workers from different backgrounds to fight together against the bosses, unions must be central to the unified struggle for trans rights, and rights and resources for all. For the unions to fight effectively for trans liberation means having an active and mobilised membership, engaged in a democratic discussion to determine policies and programme, and putting the ideas into practise campaigning on them throughout the working class.

Unions must be at the centre of building support for trans rights as part of a unified struggle for better rights and resources for all. Unions have made great first steps in declaring clear and open opposition to transphobia, and committing to work together to defend trans people from the Tories’ horrendous attacks. At the 2023 Trades Union Congress (TUC) LGBT+ Conference, most motions submitted were about or referenced the alarming rise in transphobia in Britain.

The new ‘Trade Unions for Trans Rights Network’, launched by the TUC, came about after 2022 congress delegates voted for an alliance to be established. This could be an opportunity to co-ordinate policies defending and advancing trans rights across unions. Greater coordination is a necessary part of building unions that can fight for members on all issues – including on pay, women’s rights and trans rights.

With a weak Tory government and a trade union movement stronger than it has been in decades, there is real potential to not just defend but advance the rights of trans people alongside all other workers. In our republished LGBTQ+ Charter, the Socialist Party gives suggestions of the sort of bold demands that could be fought for by the working class.  

One example is a fully funded NHS, with proper pay rises, decent staffing levels, privatised sections brought back into public ownership, the pharma giants that make money off our health needs nationalised, and the whole service democratically controlled by the working class. These measures would help trans people by ensuring gender-affirming healthcare is done in a timely manner, and delivered on the basis of what trans people want, rather than Tory ideology deciding if you have ‘earned the right’ to be seen as transgender.

Another is housing. This was a major discussion at the 2023 TUC LGBT+ Conference. There, some workers in housing and poverty charities admitted there is only so much they can do to challenge government policy and openly illegal housing discrimination. Fighting for better housing generally and for LGBTQ+ people is down to the working class.

Some 25% of young homeless people are LGBTQ+, often because family reject them for being LGBTQ+,  because employers are less likely to hire LGBTQ+ people, or because landlords just refuse to rent to LGBTQ+ people. Union demands on housing could include: more shelters, including LGBTQ+-specific services; a mass council house building campaign with affordable rents; a £15-an-hour minimum wage that rises with inflation.

But these demands will not be on offer from Keir Starmer’s Labour Party at the next general election. Labour has shown it does not have an alternative to Tory division or to capitalism. Starmer flip flops, at best, on the questions of trans rights and healthcare and is proving to be no ally to the LGBTQ+ community or to the working class at large. We need a fighting alternative.

Part of the fight for trans rights therefore is the fight to build a new workers’ party. This would mean unions being able to back candidates in elections that will fight for their members. The Socialist Party backs the call by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) to prepare a list of trade union-backed candidates for the general election.

As part of this, LGBTQ+ campaigners should consider standing as TUSC candidates alongside workers in local and general elections on a common platform against cuts and for the resources we need.

What is at the core of this fight is the need to take on capitalism itself. The Socialist Party fights for a new workers’ party to have a socialist programme. We need to replace capitalism and its chaos, greed, poverty, and oppression, with a democratic socialist system where the working-class majority, including trans workers, can plan to use the vast wealth and resources of society to provide what we all need. This would open the way to building a society free from bigotry, proscriptive gender norms, and the discrimination of capitalism.

  • This version includes some edits to that published in the print edition of the Socialist