Monday, 7 April 2014

Staying Power: Black Trade Union Activists in the UK Labour Movement


I had the immense privilege to spend this weekend delivering the second stage course in leadership skills for BME trade union activists of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) at the union's residential education facility at Alvescot in Oxfordshire.

An inspirational group of  black trade union activists at Alvescot this weekend
The specific focus of the weekend was upon measures to support an increase in the proportion of black activists in senior lay and paid positions across the union and active across its structures. 

I've been very fortunate to have spent a large proportion of my trade union teaching career involved in similar work, and I am particularly pleased to have been asked to engage in this work by Trish Lavelle the union's Head of Education.

Such activity is always welcome, but sadly it recognises that there is still much to do across the UK labour movement in improving the way in which black activists are able to fully inform  policy debates and share in leadership activity at local, regional and national levels.

Kambi and Romanus: Poetry in a Motion
A useful barometer of the health (or not) of the movement in this context comes in the form of the periodic reports produced by the South East Region TUC (SERTUC) titled Swimming Against the Tide - the title of which offers a glimpse of the challenge facing black workers, women, LGBT activities etc:

One of the most startling findings of the SERTUC reports is that many UK trade unions either do not collect data on the ethnic status of members and/or monitor representation at fora including conference, NEC etc. Similarly, is their a disproportionately low number of black full-time officials in a number of UK trade unions with a high black membership.

Michael, Prince, Roseberry, Kuldip and Bimba hard at work
It is true to say that much has changed in the UK labour movement in its attitude and focus on race. The active support of the movement for societal change, particularly in the workplace, in the wake of the McPherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence is one that I am particularly aware as much of my teaching activity, as mentioned earlier, is linked with the trade union momentum generated by McPherson and subsequent, related legislative change.

Despite this however, deeper, wider structural change still alludes the bulk of the movement, and we are not without a historical wealth of literature which has either explored the context of trade union paucity in this area and/or provided diagnosis and remedy. My personal historical favourites include Ron Ramdin's Making of the Black Working Class in Britain ( and Peter Fryer's Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (

Adam talks about his experience of the BA ILTUS at Ruskin
Taken together both books help unfold a complex story race within the UK labour movement. It isn't always a bleak story as, for example, parts of the labour movement supported the position on the Labour Party in championing independence for Commonwealth countries in the post-war era. Similarly, the Grunwick dispute, comprising principally Asian women workers, provides some evidence of the movement at its best.

In general though, the books reveal a combination of ambivalence at one end of the spectrum, and outright racist resistance (sometimes in collusion with employers) at the other. In order to ensure, however, that this historical pattern did not become a structural continuum, there has been a wealth of research which has more explicitly focused on race and trade unions in order to more specifically prescript measures to resolve historical failings.

This brief blog post can't do justice to the range of depth of this material but it includes that from academic colleagues including Jane Holgate and Miguel Martinez Lucio who have typically analysed specific organising or educational initiatives concluding that wider/deeper cultural and organisational long-term change does not occur as a result e.g:

Others, including Organising the Unorganised: Race, Poor Work and Trade Unions by John Wrench and Satnam Virdee (both have written extensively in this field) speaks of an urgent need for trade unions to organise workers engaged in 'poor work' (dirty, dangerous and demeaning) and in particular via collaborative initiatives with allied agencies/organisations outwith the labour movement:

Virdee's recent publication (Jan 2014: places such poor workers squarely within the traditions of British working class life, and as such have played, and should continue to play a central role in agencies of the working class: A short blurb for his new book reads:

Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider offers an original perspective on the significance of both racism and anti-racism in the making of the English working class. While racism became a powerful structuring force within this social class from as early as the mid-Victorian period, this book also traces the episodic emergence of currents of working class anti-racism. Through an insistence that race is central to the way class works, this insightful text demonstrates not only that the English working class was a multi-ethnic formation from the moment of its inception but that racialized outsiders - Irish Catholics, Jews, Asians and the African diaspora - often played a catalytic role in the collective action that helped fashion a more inclusive and democratic society.

Ultimately, the bulk of research dedicated to race and organised labour, leaves us with a clear sense that the work of the CWU black activists this weekend is not just necessary, but part of a long, shared concern that the UK labour movement is missing out on a vital component in the critically important debate on trade union revitalisation - this is Virdee's central point in his recent book.

The most optimistic message I can send to those reading this item is that those activists who gathered this weekend have an abiding commitment to their union and to the wider labour movement, and are committed to working collaboratively to make change happen. I very much look forward to continuing to work with them and to witness the unfolding change both in the CWU and wider movement.

In Solidarity


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