LGBT representatives have left the Fire Brigades Union national conference in Blackpool today after guaranteed voting rights for minority representatives across the union were removed by ballot yesterday afternoon.
The 44,000-member FBU voted to amend its equality structure late on the first day of the conference after a policy statement said the existing system, which guaranteed seats for LGBT, women and ethnic minority representatives on its national committee could “distort democratic structures”.
Guaranteed representation for the minority groups, the document said, could “increase the likelihood that a minority could outvote a majority”.
The national Executive Council had previously had reserved seats for representatives of six groups: officers, retained fire-fighters and command and control centre employees, which account for nearly half the Union, as well as the LGBT, women and ethnic minority ‘equality sections’.
The Council had a total of 19 seats, of which the remaining 13 were filled by regional representatives. The FBU said 31 percent of its national votes were therefore reserved for particular interest groups.
The policy document said there was “mission creep” among the minority equality sections, which had begun to have a role in wider “industrial and political debate”, beyond their initial remit as an “additional facility intended to enhance the workplace structure in an advisory capacity on issues affecting their under-represented group of members”.
Employees who are gay, bi, transgender, female or from an ethnic minority therefore have an additional voice on matters which affect all members, the reorganisation statement argued.
But it was pointed out that the same logic could be applied to the three representatives for the officer, retained fire-fighter and command centre employee groups, representing over 20,000 union members, who retained Committee seats and voting rights.
A ballot at the national conference last night removed the equality sections’ rights to vote and their national representation, but retained representatives at regional level in a purely advisory capacity.
The equality section delegates did not return to the conference for its second day this morning.
Pat Carberry, secretary of the LGBT Committee of the Fire Brigades Union stressed the importance of the equality sections in a service which is still 97 percent straight, white and male.
He told PinkNews.co.uk: “The debate was harsh and we fought our corner. Many tears have been shed by our sectional officials who have worked so hard to get to where we are in promoting equality in a service still dominated by white heterosexual males.
“The LGBT agenda was amongst the hardest to get moving yet we had achieved so much with building confidence with members of the service and people joining to feel that they could be themselves in their workplace.
“Our LGBT officials even received official endorsement from Communities and Local Government, the Local Government Association and the Chief Fire Officers Association by receiving the award for leadership in equality in the fire and rescue service some four years ago. It is unheard of for those organisations to heap praise on a trade union yet they recognised the value of the work we were doing.”
Mr Carberry said the delegates would now consider “how and if we can continue to support the members who need our services”.
The FBU had no comment on the delegates’ decision to leave the conference in protest.