This article examines two commonly adopted trade union strategies to increase the representation of under-represented groups – first, reserved seats on union decision-making bodies and second, self-organisation, involving separate structures. It does so through the case of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), whose equality reforms were considered remarkable within the union movement and fire service due to the union’s small size and highly male-dominated, white membership. However, reserved seats at senior levels were later removed following objection on the grounds of democratic legitimacy. The article examines this decision using original data comparing UK union rules for additional representation. It exposes the tensions for small, male-dominated unions of reconciling Young’s theoretical principles of ‘group-differentiated democracy’ with the realities of perceived democratic legitimacy, and argues that progress on union equality is contingent on both the particular forms of democratic representation and the political and industrial context.
- fire service
- representative and participatory democracy
- reserved seats
- black and minority ethnic (BME)
- Fire Brigades Union