Making anti-racism a union issue

Submitted by AWL on 6 October, 2020 - 7:37 Author: Ruth Cashman
Lambeth Unison activists

Two years ago, activists in the Lambeth branch of the public services union Unison launched a campaign to fight institutional racism at Lambeth Council.

We knew our employer had a huge race pay gap. We were hearing from our members that they were experiencing more racism at work, since the Brexit vote. We launched a survey and our black workers told us about their experiences of discrimination at work.

The stats showed the same story. There were a disproportionate number of white workers in higher grades. You were more likely to face a disciplinary investigation at Lambeth if you were black, more likely to be found against and to face harsher penalties.

The Council initially pushed back, claiming there was no problem of institutional racism at Lambeth, then agreed to embark on an equalities programme. Even now, managers are happy to talk about training and development to help black staff progress, but they are far less comfortable facing questions of racist managers and disproportionate disciplinary actions.

We worked with other council unions to discuss developing a network to tackle institutional racism in local government. Unison does not single out Lambeth Council for criticism, but we don’t make the implausible claim that it is a small “racism-free” island in a wider racist society either.

Following the Black Lives Matter protests we saw discussions across many unions and workplaces about racism at work. We think it is important to link these up and reinvigorate the anti-racist struggle in the labour movement. We know that those workers who felt inspired to speak up as a result of Black Lives Matter, could face victimisation and retributions if we don’t build sustainable labour movement campaigns to keep anti-racism on the agenda and bosses on the back foot.

We sent our solidarity to Sherelle Cadogan, an Aslef member, who has been given a 12 month suspended dismissal for challenging racism. Her case is important to every trade unionist challenging racism.

A weakness of mainstream anti-racism and anti-fascism has been its reliance on building cross-class alliances, as if the Tory architects of austerity — creators of the poisonous conditions in which racism thrives — can be allies in the fight to change those conditions. Sadly, too often our unions have outsourced our anti-racism to fronts and NGOs, instead of seeing it as a key part of class politics, which political and industrial wings of the movement should prioritise. We want to change this.

We will be writing to trade union branches to organise a trade union anti-racist conference based on branches and regions of unions, to organise in the workplace and the streets.

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