What made you get involved in trade unions?
Instinctively, I’ve always had a strong desire to fight for fairness and against injustice. Therefore, I was always going to be sympathetic towards trade unions as these are core aims of the movement. So, as soon as I started work, I joined a trade union. I became an activist whilst I was working at Walsall Council in the early 2000s. At the time, I was working at the Local Education Authority and the whole LEA was threatened with privatisation. It was a stressful environment to be working in. There was job insecurity and our jobs were being changed drastically and we felt powerless about what was happening. I recognised that individually there was little we could do. So I decided to get more involved in the union and I became an activist and I got elected as a workplace rep. Getting active and organised was transformative for me as it gave us a voice against the power of the employer. Getting organised meant that we were able to challenge decisions that were being made and although we did not win the fight against privatisation, it helped curb the worst excesses of the plans proposed.
Getting involved as an activist, opened up other opportunities as I was elected to go to regional and national meetings.
Why do you think there is some reluctance from BAMEs to join unions?
I think, it’s maybe a historical legacy. For example like my father’s generation who were invited to the UK back in the 50s and 60s from the West Indies and the Indian sub-continent to fill labour shortages, their experience in the workplace was as my dad described it quite hostile. I guess those experiences have been passed down from that generation to the next therefore making people wary about joining a union
However, there has been progress since then, in the 1970s things began to change as we had black leaders emerge in the movement. Great women like Jayben Desai who led the Grunwick strike helped make unions re-think the way they thought about race and things began to change for the better. In the 1990s we had the first black general secretary of a union. I think having black leaders in the movement like Jayaben Desai and Bill Morris in positions of leadership was a significant leap forward. It meant we started to see black people having a voice within trade unions.
Of course, it not just about historical issues, trade unions are not immune from racism and as a movement we should always be vigilant to make sure that we are doing all we can to challenge racism wherever we find it. One of the best ways to achieve this in unions is by allowing members the ability to self-organise and for their voice to be heard in the union and any grievances can be aired. I do believe that we have made some genuine progress, for example we have the TUC Black Workers Conference that is still going strong and many individual unions now also have forums for members to come together. Having said that there are still barriers that persist and we as unions need to do more to reach out to black people not only in the workplace but I believe we should be going out to them in the communities in which they live and promote what trade unions are all about and how they help.
Why is there an absence of talk about issues specifically facing black people in the trade union movement? Is it because there is a genuine feeling that these issues don’t exist or people feel uncomfortable having to address them?
I think there may be an element of that as there still isn’t enough diversity in the leaderships of most trade unions therefore when it comes to dealing with sensitive issues of race sometimes unions prefer to bury their head in the sand. Racism is real and racism exists in society in the workplace and therefore within trade unions. We are not in a post-racist society yet. So the reality is black people’s experiences in the workplace are tinged with that.
As unions we have to support black people if they have had those experiences. I believe a solution is through self-organisation and collective action and by flexing our collective strength. I also think that the struggle for justice and fairness in the workplace is the same struggle for all working people. Fighting for better job security and better pay, is just as important, if not more so for black people as they are disproportionally forced to take up zero hours contracts and low paid jobs. Also fighting for fair and equal access to training and job opportunities will also help career advancement for black people.
By creating a safe space for black people to organize and speak out we provide and create opportunities for them to challenge and confront racism and this gives a platform to raise issues that are of concern to them. I think that unions are better placed than most organisations to address black issues, but there is always more that can be done.
Do you think that Napo and other unions are equipped to deal with the issues faced by all sections of their membership, or is it down to certain groups to get together and champion the issues that matter to them?
You have to do both. You have to create the opportunity for members to come together and talk about the issues that directly affect their day-to-day lives and the experiences they have in the workplace, but you also have to put it into the broader context of what’s happening to a profession, what’s happening to a country and what’s happening globally. You can’t look at things in isolation. Because Napo is a small union, it’s sometimes difficult for us to provide those opportunities. With limited funds and a relatively small membership we have less scope to bring people together. But setting up the Napo Black Network, was a huge step forward and it allowed black members in Napo to come together and to talk about the issues that are of concern to them. But we should not just ghettoize these concerns and they should be mainstreamed so we can use the collective strength of the union as a whole to make things better.
It is important and I would say essential that if you want to change things, you must get the whole of the membership to understand what the issue is and how it should be taken forward. To get “black issues” on the agenda, you first need for them to come from the caucus that is representing that cause, so it’s important that there are structures were black people, LGBT people, disabled people can come together and discuss the issues that matter the most to them.
The next step is to use the structures of the union to get the mainstream of the union to take these issues on and progress it as an issue for all. It’s only through our collective strength as trade unionists that we can make that difference.
Outside of the collective voice, why do you think it is important for black people to join a trade union?
Because we know the nature of work is changing. Work is becoming more precarious; it’s becoming more insecure. Being a part of a trade union matters because it helps provide better job security, better pay and conditions and more training opportunities. Most importantly if things do go horribly wrong at work you get access to legal advice and support when you need it most and it also gives you peace of mind that if something does go wrong, that you have the weight of the union behind you. Therefore in my view it’s a no brainer it pays to be in a trade union.