This story of colour bars in the UK railway and bus industries begins after the Second World War, when Britain had a labour shortage and people moved to Britain in increasing numbers from Caribbean countries and elsewhere.
The National Union of Railwaymen (NUR, predecessor of the RMT) declared in 1948 that: “we have no objection to the employment of coloured men in the railway industry” and that “coloured men had been satisfactorily employed on the railways over a long period”.
But although the top of the union was getting it right, in some areas the grassroots was not. In 1950, white workers at King’s Cross goods depot complained to the NUR through their branches that coloured men were being recruited above the entry grades and they would not stand for coloured men having seniority or authority over white men.
To his credit, Jim Campbell, Assistant General Secretary of the NUR (who later became General Secretary), went to the workplace and convinced a meeting of workers from six London depots to get behind the union’s opposition to the colour bar.
The following year, the NUR Executive agreed to co-operate with the Railway Executive (the governing body of the railways) in removing obstacles to the employment of black workers. A black NUR member summed up the importance of the union’s stance in the workplace, saying: “Yes, there has been hostility from white staff but on the transport you have so much backing from the union they can’t do much.”
However, racism among transport workers did not go away.
In the mid-1950s, there was a spate of industrial action by bus workers, who were organised by the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G, now part of Unite).
In 1953, Wolverhampton bus workers held an overtime ban, “as a protest against the increasing number of coloured workers employed”, demanding the employer impose a quota of only 52 black workers out of the nine hundred workers on the Wolverhampton buses.
In the same year, West Bromwich bus workers held a series of one-day strikes against the employment of a single Indian bus conductor. The T&G official said that, “I do not think there is any racial antagonism behind this”!
Three years later, the BBC showed a Panorama documentary about the colour bar on the railway. Workplace interviews at Smithfield depot showed a manager defending the policy of not employing black workers, but it seemed that the pressure for the policy was coming from white workers, and their union rep gave voice to this.
NUR representative Mr Geary assured the BBC interviewer that there was “no prejudice” against coloured men, explaining that instead, the issue was that coloured men worked too slowly, did not speak the lingo well, and were “apt to lose their temper and resort to tactics that the average white man would not resort to”. The interviewer concluded by asking, “Have you ever worked with a coloured man?”, to which the rep answered “No, I haven’t.”
Until the 1960s, there was no particular restriction on immigration from Commonwealth countries, but that changed with the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962.
Peter Fryer explains in his important book Staying Power, a history of black people in Britain, that, “Between 1958 and 1968 black settlers in Britain watched the racist tail wag the Parliamentary dog .. as sop after stop was thrown to racism, attacks on black people ... mounted from year to year. But the worst violence of all, since it affected every black settler without exception, was their relegation as ‘immigrants’ to the permanent status of second-class citizens. This was brought about in 1962.”
This Act began a series of laws over the next few decades to restrict the right of black people to move to Britain from Commonwealth countries. Racism and restrictions on immigration fed each other.
What was the NUR’s response? In 1962, the union did the right thing, its AGM heavily defeating a motion in support of restricting immigration. But then in 1966, it did the wrong thing, endorsing the Labour party’s acceptance of the 1962 Act and voting down a motion opposing immigration controls.
In 1963, Bristol’s black community launched a boycott of the Bristol Omnibus Company in protest at its refusal to employ black workers. Black Bristolians and white supporters marched through the city in support of the boycott, which won a historic victory, overturning the colour bar.
1966 saw a battle that RMT rightly celebrates every year. When Dominica-born Marylebone rail worker Asquith Xavier applied for a job at Euston, he received a response from the staff committee, which was made up of NUR reps, stating they were not prepared to accept the transfer of coloured staff. As RMT’s excellent pamphlet Unity In Diversity describes, “a network of white shop stewards was running a closed shop which included a colour bar”. There was no law against that at the time.
But Marylebone NUR got behind Asquith. His workmate Tony Donaghey had applied for the same post and got the job, despite Asquith having more seniority than him. Tony felt strongly against racism; he was Irish and had experienced racist discrimination. He refused to take up his new job in solidarity with Asquith. Tony Donaghey went on many years later to become RMT’s National President.
Marylebone NUR made the union put up a serious fight. In July 1966, British Rail overturned all colour bars. The next month, Asquith Xavier started work at Euston, where there is now a plaque paying tribute to him and the role he played in fighting racism.
We can see from this story that racism does not usually announce itself explicitly. Mostly, it doesn’t say “Hello, I’m a racist”; it starts with “We’re not racist, but ...”
We do not have colour bars any more. They are illegal and have been for a long time. But there is still racism against black rail workers, in different forms. Perhaps an examination of those forms may be the topic of another article.
The poisonous symbiosis of racism and opposition to immigration is still with us. Even some avowed socialists and trade unionists say that they have nothing against, for example, EU migrants, they just want to stop them coming here and undermining jobs and conditions. They would do well to recognise the echo in that of arguments made by advocates of the colour bar.
These stories tell of the importance of trade unions in tackling racism. Unlike the employers’ class, the working class has an organic drive towards unity, because we win more for all workers when we involve all workers. However, that drive to unity does not happen automatically. Part of the role of trade unionists is to challenge racism within our unions.
We want rank-and-file control of our unions - even the best of them are still very top-heavy, very officer-led, very bureaucratic - but we need to know what we’re going to do when there is racism among the rank and file. Fortunately, the story of the fight against colour bars gives us some very good examples to learn from.
• More: Peter Fryer, Staying Power; Philip Bagwell, The Railwaymen; RMT, Unity In Diversity; BBC Panorama documentary, 1956