This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first motion passed by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) in favour of what was then known as the Gay Rights Movement. It was the starting point of a long history of support from the trade union movement for the rights of LGBTQ+ workers.
In 1982, the ICTU passed the first motion in support of LGBTQ+ rights in its history. The motion had been proposed by the activist Kieran Rose of the Cork Gay Collective and seconded by Tricia Treacy to the Cork Branch of the Local Government and Public Service Union (LGPSU Trade Union). It stated that the Union would commit to calling on the ICTU to support the decriminalisation of homosexuality and to lobby for employment legislation that would protect workers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
In the years to come, the Trade Unions movement proved to be a powerful and loyal ally for the LGBTQ+ community. The movement’s ability to influence legislation played a key role in the progress of LGBTQ+ rights, and not only in matters concerning employment. Their support was fundamental during the campaigns to obtain civil partnership and, later, the successful referendum on marriage equality.
The history of the trade union movement in Ireland dates back to the 18th century, though only from about 1889 onwards did workers begin to organise en mass. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), currently the largest civil society organisation in the country, was founded in 1894. It is an affiliation of 44 Unions north and south of the border and its goal is to be the collective voice for Irish labour. Nowadays, the ICTU campaigns on behalf of some 800,000 working people. Among them are lesbian, gay, bisexual, Transgender and other queer workers.
The rights of LGBTQ+ workers were not protected under Irish law up until the 1990’s. Indeed, because homosexuality was illegal until 1993, queer people were even more at risk of discrimination in the workplace if they were open about their sexual orientation. This is why campaigning for the protection of the rights of Irish queer citizens became a priority for LGBTQ+ organisations founded in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
The Cork Gay Collective, a radical group that campaigned for LGBTQ+ rights, was among the organisations that worked closely with Trade Unions in the fight for equal employment rights for lesbians and gay men. When the First National Gay Conference was held in Cork in 1981, they were given the responsibility to coordinate action towards equal rights in the following 15 years.
Another instrumental group was the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN), founded in 1988 to lobby for legislative change. Many of the activists who were part of GLEN were also Trade Union activists. Thanks to these groups campaigning and the help they got from the Trade Union activists, the rights of LGBTQ+ workers could progress and be written into law.
A first attempt to change legislation was made by the Irish Labour Party in 1990, when they proposed an equality bill that would introduce protections on the grounds of sexual orientation. However, the bill was defeated in the Dáil and did not become law.
In 1993, the same year when homosexuality was finally decriminalised in Ireland, an amendment was added to the Unfair Dismissal Act that included protection against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Five years later in 1998, sexual orientation was also included as one of the protected characteristics in the Employment Equality Act. The law also included protection on the grounds of gender.
In 1999, the Irish Equality Authority established the Advisory Committee on Lesbian Gay and Bisexual Issues, which later published the report Implementing Equality for Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals (2002).
Over time, the intense campaigning and lobbying of these groups led to the current employment equality legislation that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. There is currently no specific provision that protects people from discrimination on the grounds of gender identity, but Transgender people are considered to be protected under the gender ground.
There are two separate organisations in place to ensure equality at work: the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Workplace Relations Commission. The first one can provide general information on human rights and equality legislation and in some cases gives legal assistance to people bringing claims to the Equality Tribunal. The latter investigates and mediates cases of unlawful discrimination. It also has an online platform that allows people to bring discrimination claims under the Employment Equality Acts.
To celebrate these 40 years of support and progress, the Financial Services Union (FSU), a leading Trade Union in the financial and tech sectors, is organising a series of Facebook webinars on the relationship between the Trade Union movement and the rights of LGBTQ+ people. The discussions will include LGBTQ+ Trade Unionists and will analyse specific legislation that protects LGBTQ+ workers in the workplace.
Sources: Egan, O. 2019. The Struggle for LGBT Workers’ Rights Ireland. Cork LGBT Archive. https://corklgbtarchive.com/blog/uncategorized/the-struggle-for-lgbt-workers-rights-ireland/
Alison Gilliland and Kieran Rose talk at Pride at Work conference. ‘40 Years of Irish Workers Supporting LGBTQ+ Rights’