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Racism and anti-Racism in Unions

This is the third post in our UCU Week of Action Against Work-Place Racism series. See the previous posts from Monday and Tuesday. You can also contribute to our crowd-sourced actions (to be released on Friday).

As a trade union, UCU is committed to improving the working conditions for all university staff. It provides specific spaces for Black members — such as its Black Members’ Standing Committee (see the film ‘witness‘ which chronicles the lived experiences of Black members) and an annual Black members’ conference, as well as a Black Voices webpage.

In this respect, UCU operates with the framework of political Blackness, “an umbrella term …encompass[ing] minorities with family origins in Asia and the Middle East as well as in Africa and its diaspora.” Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at New York University, explains the British origins of this inclusive approach to Blackness in a recent New York Times op-ed, “What we can learn from the rise and fall of political Blackness” (7 October 2020).

In 2016, UCU launched a week of action against workplace racism, supporting its wider campaigning against racism. In the past year UCU has published a short guide for branches to build anti-racist workplaces as well as several reports on racism in the education system (see below). UCU also incorporated a sector wide action plan to address race and gender pay gaps into its 2019-2020 pay claim, extending this to include disability pay gap in the 2020-2021 claim.

Student unions too campaign for race equality. The National Union for Students Black Students’ Campaign, for example, recommends ‘A Black Students Officer in every Union’.

In spite of these efforts, it is important to be aware that, as the majority of members of UCU are white, there is a danger of overlooking or ignoring the needs of those who are not. In addition, UCU must be understood within the broader union environment and history, which itself is not devoid of racism.

In Comrade or Brother? A History of the British Labour Movement, Mary Davis looks at patriarchal divisions as well as imperialism and racism and the ways these have shaped the British working class. In ‘connecting the separate spheres of class, race and gender,’ she highlights how UK trade unions too have had to deal with questions of racism and xenophobia. Reviewing the second edition (Pluto Press, 2009), Ronaldo Munck writes:

The term social imperialism, first coined by Karl Renner in 1917, accurately sums up a system in which the spoils of empire would be used to finance social reform at home. Racism, eugenics and jingoism or national chauvinism united in a potent mix. For Mary Davis this constellation “provided the new unifying antidote to the emerging socialist consciousness of the 1880’s which threatened to expose the possible class conflict of a declining economy” (p.88). Social imperialism continued as a powerful force into the 20th century, and not even all the socialist organizations took an anti-imperialist stance. As to the mainstream labour movement at the very best it was silent on Empire, the partition of Africa was simply never referred to, but much more common was a fervently pro-Empire stance. Notions of the ‘white man’s burden’ were more or less dominant with a racial chauvinism greatly weakening the unifying potential of the trade unions. Overt racial prejudice and an effective colour bar in many areas contributed to high Black worker unemployment, a situation that only changed with the acute labour shortages during the Second World War. Unfortunately, the contemporary debates around racism, black worker self-organization and the trade union relationship to immigration lie outside the scope of this book.

Source: [Review of] Mary Davis. Comrade or Brother? A History of the British Labour Movement. London: Pluto Press, 2009. 304pp.

To this day, the ambiguity of unions’ anti-racism stance remains: EU-funded research led by Steve Jefferys (2006) showed significant differences between the tolerant and even positive discourse and national policies of trade unions against racism and xenophobia, and the reality in the workplace.

More recently, Jeffreys and Nouria Ouali have continued to explore how European trade unions have responded to workplace racism against minority and migrant workers, with reference to the impact of the 2008 recession. In “Hard times for trade union anti-racism workplace strategies” (Transfer, 2015), Ouali and Jefferys explain that while “union pressure for equal treatment had already weakened somewhat before the crisis”, “subsequently, unemployment levels for ethnic minority and migrant workers rose much faster than for “national majority’ workers, and levels of tension in the workplace have often increased”. They highlight four main union responses: “denial of racism and protection of the interests of national majority workers; the demand that minorities assimilate without special provisions; recognition of the need for minorities to have some special services and support; and the adoption of positive measures to promote equal treatment.”

Employing survey data from the largest (known) sample of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic staff in British higher and further education, and drawing on the psychology of social movements, Joseph Sweetman examines minority leadership within trade unions in the paper “When Similarities are More Important than Differences: ‘Politically Black’ Union Members’ Experiences of Racism and Participation in Union Leadership” (Social Issues, 2018). He finds that perceptions of racism and experiences of bullying may contribute to minorities attending union meetings and raising issues of racism with the union, but does not foster other forms of union involvement. He suggests unions need to do more to ‘build trust in the union’s position on racism’ and to improve politically black members’ levels of trust and commitment in order to make union leadership more representative of its membership.

If you are interested in taking action in this area, Sheffield UCU Anti-Racism Working Group welcomes new members. As with other areas of union work, how much we can achieve depends on our willingness to contribute time and energy to the cause. There’s space to volunteer and seek more information in the actions form, which complements this blog miniseries.

Racism and anti-racism in Social movements

This is the second post in our UCU Week of Action Against Work-Place Racism series. See the previous post here. Contribute to our crowd-sourced actions (to be released on Friday) here.

Historically, many white-led groups committed to social justice have been instrumental in perpetuating oppressive structures by ignoring and silencing people of colour. In The Progressive Plantation: racism inside white radical social change groups, Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin reflects on his own experiences within anarchist and anti-racist organisations; while Emahunn Raheem Ali Campbell responds to media comments on the absence of African Americans from the Occupy Movement by highlighting a misplaced focus on “togetherness” (being physically in one place) rather than “unity” (having a clear common cause).

Feminist movements, equally, have proven to be problematic when it comes to race. Writing in a US context, Monnica T. Williams highlights areas pertinent to black women’s lives which white feminism ignores–maternal care, infant mortality, the disappearance of native women, etc. Separately, Rachel Elizabeth Cargle analyses how practices such as tone policing in feminist movements uphold white supremacy, thereby oppressing, rather than liberating, Black women. Both are written for a general audience. In the journal Hypatia, Mariana Ortega’s 2006 article “Being Lovingly, Knowingly Ignorant: White Feminism and Women of Color” offers a more in-depth analysis of potential issues that arise in the relationship between white feminists and women of colour; Ortega recommends the concept of “world”-travelling as a solution, inviting white feminists to experience differences affecting the lives of women of colour, rather than merely acknowledging that differences exist. Sirma Bilge’s 2014 article, “Intersectionality Undone: Saving Intersectionality from Feminist Intersectionality Studies”, highlights appropriation and misuse of the concept of intersectionality in feminist academic circles.

Much of what is written on this topic draws necessarily upon personal and culturally-specific experiences. In Them Goon Rules: Fugitive Essays on Radical Black Feminism (2018), Marquis Bey brings together personal experiences of social justice work in the United States (especially Philadelphia and New York) and the exploration of queerness, Black studies and Black feminism. The history and practice of Black feminism and Afrofeminism in Europe is the topic of attention in Akwugo Emejulu and Francesca Sobande’s edited collection To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe (2019), a portion of which is available open access courtesy of the publisher Pluto Books. There they explain their goal to ““correct the record” and “talk back against both American domination and European silence about Black feminism”. For a dense but enlightening account of British Black Power and its similarities and differences with the US Black Power movement, we also recommend John Narayan’s article British Black Power: The anti-imperialism of political blackness and the problem of nativist socialism (Sociological Review, 2019).

Look out for the next post in this series tomorrow, which will focus specifically on the role of Trade Unions in perpetuating and combatting racism.

Racism and anti-racism in unions and educational institutions: a mini-series for the 2021 UCU Week of Action Against Work-Place Racism

Today (22nd February) we mark the beginning of UCU’s Annual week of Action Against Work-Place Racism with the start of a short blog series on racism and anti-racism in contexts relevant to our Union. SUCU members Enja Helmes, Caroline Metz, and other members of the Sheffield UCU Anti-Racism Working Group have written a series of posts highlighting key issues and resources in relation to race and racism as it affects social movements, trade unions and education.

Monday: Introduction

It is easy to fill a reading list, but we then face the important question: how to turn learning into action? Action cannot wait until we are experts. We write as white-identifying members of UCU and with the acknowledgement that if we are to be active anti-racists and effective allies for colleagues, co-unionists, students and citizens racialised as BAME, then we need to get better at moving from words to deeds. That might apply to you too, so this first blog post comes with an invitation:

On Friday (26th February), we’ll be sharing actions that our members have been involved with, and pledges of action members intend to take. As well as collecting together formal actions taken by Sheffield UCU, we will be crowd-sourcing examples. So if there is something you are already doing that others might be interested in, or you have suggestions about what Sheffield UCU can do as we seek to translate knowledge into action, please let us know. Share your responses via this Google Form.

We will be capturing email addresses of those who share answers in case we have follow-up questions (e.g., if something you write is unclear); responses will be published anonymously unless you request otherwise. We welcome responses from non-UCU members too, though the form is only accessible to members of the University.


Following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police, the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum, including in Sheffield where a new BLM group was created.

The BLM movement is part of the wider racial justice movement, and in past months we have seen many ‘anti-racist reading lists’ published in various media outlets and on social media platforms. Most highlight non-fiction books about racism (including anti-Black racism), colonialism and white supremacy, their origins and how they have operated to this day. (This one, compiled by Foluke Ifejola Adebisi from the University of Bristol, is very comprehensive.)

Others suggest novels, graphic novels and poetry on racism and resistance to racism. Some university departments have focused on their own areas of research (see for example this anti-racist legal pedagogy resource), and Sheffield University library itself has shared a list of anti-racism resources.

As university workers and as members of a union, we need to be critical about our own institutions and practices. In this blog series we will be introducing resources—some accessible freely online, others available via the University library—that show how social movements and social change organisations such as schools, universities and unions are often complicit in perpetuating racial inequalities.

Speaking and writing as white people, it’s important to note that although we experience racism as a hierarchical and discriminatory system in that we benefit from white privilege (even when we might not be aware of it), we do not directly experience racism as a system of oppression. As such, we will be foregrounding the work of people who are much more qualified to speak about racism, and sharing resources that helped our understanding of racism. In doing so, we hope to provide a launch pad—and not by any means a definitive list—for others who want to learn, or learn more. The concluding post will include a reference list with further readings.

Some books, such as Taking up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi, share individuals’ experiences of what it means to enter academia as black womxn. See also the edited collection, The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in Times of Explicit Racial Violence, which features chapters from Dr Azeezat Johnson, “An Academic Witness: White Supremacy within and beyond Academia” and Dr Muna Abdi, “I am not a Writer”–both of whom completed their PhDs at Sheffield in 2017.

In upcoming posts we will focus on the plethora of reports, articles and books that examine the various ways in which Black people, as well as other racialised communities, face disadvantages and discrimination in Higher Education and within social movements.

A note on language:
The vocabulary used to talk about race and racism is itself at issue. This blog series is written from the standpoint of white-identifying female academics who seek to be anti-racist. We have aimed to reflect the chosen terminology of the writers discussed and are aware that each terminology has its limitations and critics (Black vs. people of colour, vs. non-white, vs. BAME, etc.). We note that whereas the acronym “BAME” has been widely adopted by HE institutions and is commonly used for statistical purposes, it serves to obscure difference and is not ordinarily a component of the identities of those to whom it seeks to refer. In that respect, we use the more accurate “racialized as BAME”.

Tomorrow’s post: Racism and anti-racism in Social movements

Take action today to support service workers on campus!

Dear fellow members,

As you know, over the past month, representatives from UCU, Unite, and UNISON have been meeting with the University of Sheffield human resources team twice a week to negotiate over issues related to the safety and security of all of the workers on this campus.

We are writing to you today to make you aware of the unfortunate policy which UNICUS, a wholly owned subsidiary of the University of Sheffield, has adopted during the current crisis. While the University has agreed to top up the government furlough scheme from 80% to 100%, UNICUS has elected to adopt the government furlough scheme only. This means that UNICUS staff, a mixture of students and non-students, will be making only 80% of their usual salaries during this time. UNICUS workers have been speaking out about the unequal conditions they are experiencing and The Forge Press has also written about Unite’s call for pay parity for UNICUS staff.

The bottomline is that many of the lowest paid staff members working at our University will now be making less than the living wage, threatening their ability to provide basic necessities for themselves and their dependents during a global crisis. It sends a clear message that some members of our campus community matter more than others.

UNICUS, which helps to run accommodation, commercial, and hospitality services, including many of the food service venues at the University, is a legally separate employer from the University of Sheffield. However, as a wholly owned subsidiary, it is nonetheless heavily intertwined with the University. For example, the two employers share a Chief Financial Officer, and the director of UNICUS is also the director of University of Sheffield Accommodation Services. Line managers employed by the University of Sheffield are in many cases responsible for managing employees from both TUoS and Unicus. In addition, the University is far and away UNICUS’s largest client.

For all of these reasons and more, the University ultimately bears a moral responsibility for the treatment of UNICUS staff.

After an extensive lobbying campaign by the Student Union and campus trade unions several years back, the University agreed to pay a living wage to all staff. UNICUS subsequently committed to paying “the equivalent of the Living Wage” as well and claims it has “an ongoing commitment to our most valuable asset, our staff; recognising their talents, the great customer service culture they display and the positive way they contribute”. A policy which denies workers a living wage during this crisis belies this commitment.

Many of you have already contacted us asking about the conditions of UNICUS staff and expressing your support. The Unite, UNISON, and UCU branch committees have jointly written to the director of UNICUS asking the company to provide proper support to their staff during this crisis. However, it is imperative that we speak up collectively as a campus community to make it clear that the University bears a moral responsibility to ensure that all workers labouring at the University, whether directly employed or not, must be able to provide for themselves and their dependents.

If you are able, please take 5 minutes today to email UNICUS director/ University accommodation services director Caryn Masters at c.masters@sheffield.ac.uk and copy in the VC at vc@sheffield.ac.uk.

An injury to one is an injury to all!


Sheffield UCU Branch Committee

Update on Branch Response to COVID-19 Crisis

Dear fellow members,

As we head into the extended Easter break, we thought it would be a good time to update everyone so that we can go into the long weekend with a little less uncertainty about the university management’s response to the coronavirus. We know how much work everyone has been doing to juggle caring responsibilities, working from home, preparing for an entirely new way of interacting with and teaching our students — and all of this alongside the emotional toll of dealing with the ongoing crisis. We hope that you will take the full extent of this holiday to relax (to the extent that is possible) and step away from work entirely. We are going to be doing so as well.

Updates from Coronavirus meetings with HR

Since Tuesday, 17 March, the staffside unions (UCU, Unite, and UNISON) have been meeting with members of HR twice a week to represent and negotiate for the needs of staff during this crisis. We have been meeting with HR far more often than we usually do and we have been pleased to see that they have also been taking the current situation very seriously. We feel that our institution has worked with us in a collaborative and productive way. Our ongoing discussions suggest that we have been leading the sector in support for staff in the ongoing crisis. While there are still a lot of outstanding issues to address in the coming months, we have made some good progress in important areas like support for casualised staff.

We have been trying to keep you regularly updated with news from these meetings through emails and our online EGMs, but here are some of the main points.


We’ve been hugely successful on negotiating furlough conditions for staff on Casual Worker Agreements. Staff applying for the furlough scheme will be paid 100% of their expected wages at least until mid June. Around 1000 casually employed staff who are eligible will have received an email about this. If you’re concerned about your eligibility or hold multiple contracts, please email coronavirus@sheffield.ac.uk  We are really pleased with our success in this area and think we are the first institution in the country to offer this kind of support to casual workers.

We have made some progress on Fixed Term Contracts with a focus on those due to end before mid June. Some contracts have already been extended and some have been turned into Open Ended Contracts. We are still waiting to hear back from management about how they will process each case but they have informed us that they’re being “proactive rather than reactive” in their communications with individual departments and line managers.

UNICUS, which is a subsidiary that is fully owned by the University of Sheffield is refusing to pay its furloughed staff 100% of their wages. We have been working with the other campus unions to ensure that all staff across campus get treated equally and are working on a joint letter calling on UNICUS to ensure that all of its staff are treated in full. It is not acceptable to ask the lowest paid workers at this institution to make an additional sacrifice in pay during this crisis.


Support for staff

HR have confirmed there will be an extension to the promotion deadline. We have asked for clarity on what changes will be made to the promotions process but we are still waiting for more detail on what promotions will look like in this round

All restructures have been paused unless staff have specifically asked for them to continue. Similarly, all disciplinary procedures, except in cases of gross misconduct (or in cases where members wish to continue with the process), have also been paused. If you are approached about a disciplinary procedure please do get in touch with us.

We have asked for better working from home support and are waiting to hear about provisions to make reasonable adjustments for disabled members as well as risk assessments for home working including Display Screen Equipment.

Both ourselves and the Students’ Union have raised issues related to TUoS’ support of PGRs. The UCU and the SU will be working on this together especially as there is a lot of crossover between the UCU’s role in supporting PGRs as staff members and the SU’s role in supporting PGRs as students

There has been a pause on all new recruitment, however we have been reassured that each case will be considered individually. A new Recruitment Approval Panel has been set up to consider all new hires and they have made the following decisions: anyone who has received an offer and has a start date before 19 April is automatically approved; all cases where the start date is 20 April or after will be considered, and they may ask for additional information about some of them before approving them.

Staff are encouraged to take annual leave where possible. We know that in some cases this may not be as feasible owing to changes in term dates. Where this is the case, do ask your line managers for support.

Staying connected and getting involved in worker advocacy

Even while we are working from home, there are ways that you can get involved with UCU and other campaigns involved with coronavirus related advocacy.

  • After the Easter break, we will be holding another online EGM. Details on date and time to follow, but we hope you will come along to ask questions and hear updates on what is happening both locally and nationally.

  • Corona Contract is a new self-organised group of UCU members fighting for the rights of HE staff on precarious contracts. They are holding a zoom webinar meeting this Thursday night at 7pm which you can register for here. Attend to learn about how you can get involved in fighting against precarity during this crisis.

  • Take a look at general resources to get involved in fighting for workers’ rights, including the TUC Coronavirus webinar, and Sheffield COVID support map, which gives information on local mutual aid groups and community hubs you can support or volunteer with.


Dispute update

The intensity of business over USS has been unabated by coronavirus, with the board confirming that they will be going ahead with the 2020 valuation despite the unsettled markets and unknown ultimate economic effects. It is hard to see how a meaningful long-term assessment of the scheme’s health can be made based on the 31 March data, and the regulator is still to issue guidance to schemes with such a valuation date on how to proceed. That said, there is positive joint work going on between UCU and UUK on methodology which is being discussed with USS at the Valuation Methodology Discussion Forum.

In contrast, there was a brief halt in the negotiations in the Four Fights dispute due to illness. Discussions are going to begin again after the Easter break, with a planned meeting between UCEA and the UCU pay negotiation team. We will be able to send you a much more concrete update at that point.

On a central level, UCU president Douglas Chalmers has written to members of the National Executive Committee, expressing UCU’s intention to make sure that national meetings of the NEC, HEC, and FEC (Higher and Further Education Committees, respectively) will continue in an online format. The next HEC meeting is planned for the 24th of April.

In closing, please do have a restful weekend. We hope all of you are safe and healthy. As always, if you need any advice or support, please do not hesitate to contact us at ucu@sheffield.ac.uk.


Sheffield UCU branch committee