Kept Out for their Colour

Posted in Tubeworker's blog on Mon, 21/09/2020 - 14:51,
Asquith Xavier

At last week's online Tubeworker meeting (held jointly with Off The Rails), we learned about the history of 'colour bars' on the railways.

After the Second World War, there was a labour shortage in Britain, and thousands of black workers from Britain's former colonies came here to fill the jobs. London Transport set up a recruiting office in Barbados.

Unfortunately, across the transport industry some white workers saw the black immigrants as a threat to their jobs and some even asked their unions to demand a bar, or a quota, on 'coloured' workers. There were strikes against the employment of black and Asian workers on the buses in the West Midlands.

We watched a clip from a 1956 Panorama programme in which an NUR (National Union of Railwaymen, predecessor of RMT) rep explained that while they weren't racist, they didn't want "coloured men" working there because they were slow and prone to violence! Euston mainline station operated a bar on black workers into the 1960s, administered by a Staff Committee of NUR reps.

But the union nationally was firm in its anti-racism, and NUR General Secretaries went to speak with union members at work and persuaded them to aim their fire at the employers not at their fellow workers. In 1966, when Asquith Xavier (pictured) was refused a job at Euston solely and explicitly because of his colour, his NUR comrades at Marylebone took up the case and won an end to colour bars across the railway industry.

There are many important lessons for us today. While there are no longer colour bars in our industry (unlike then, it would be illegal now), black and ethnic minority workers are still over-represented in lower-paid jobs (particularly insecure, contracted-out work), and some Brexit-fuelled attitudes to Eastern European migrant workers echo those of the advocates of colour bars over fifty years ago.

We held a valuable discussion on racism past and present. Watch this space for details of further online Tubeworker meetings.

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