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.