By Thomas L Blair 17 April 2016 ©
British unions were once considered too insular, White and damn near apartheid. Times indeed have changed but the equality struggle continues, according to activists at the TUC Black Workers Conference 2016.
The Black struggles of the 1960s and 1970s created a trade union movement less divided by race. However, equal pay on the shop floor is elusive. Black workers have little say in union affairs. Hence, said Wilf Sullivan, TUC Equality Officer, Black workers’ progress requires constant vigilant action to secure it. “Use your collective sway to make working life better,” he said in the “Working for You” supplement, The Voice, Britain’s top Black weekly.
Gloria Mills, the UNISON National Secretary for Equalities, acts for the Black workers in the 1.3 million-member public service union, one of the UK’s and Europe’s largest trade unions.
Mills promotes two crucial causes. “Black and white members are stronger together”. Furthermore, Government needs “A race equality strategy as a matter of political priority, with clear targets and adequate resourcing”.
UNITE the union “leads the way in championing race equality”. Union reps and activists like David Agbley target Black, Asian and minority ethnics in the NHS. There, an estimated 20 per cent of the 1.4 million employees languish in the low ranked non-medical staff.
Race equality features in another sector of Black workers concerns. Activists stand up for the 40,000 BAME members in the 435,000 workers in the Usdaw union. It is the major trade union of shop workers, delivery drivers and warehouse workers across the UK.
Blacks, in the smaller but increasingly digitised 193,500-member Communication Workers Union, are severely threatened. Organisers aim to protect the jobs of manual skilled Black workers in the Post Office, telephone and telecommunications companies.
However, equality activists have signalled the vanguard role of aroused Black workers. Dr Wanda Wyporska, leads the Association of Teachers and Lecturers fight back “against the abhorrent [Government] changes that… affect all our young people and our Black and Asian teachers, lecturers and support staff”.
Senior Black trade union militants emphasise the wider implications. Prejudice is a constant spectre. Wilf Sullivan said Black, Asian and minority ethnic workers bear a special burden, different from their White comrades.
BAME workers are concentrated in poverty line, low-pay casual, temporary, zero hours and agency contract work. But more than this, “They are underpaid, underemployed, underrepresented in boardrooms and elite universities, all the while facing discrimination at the hands of employers, government and wider society”.
Hence,the equality goal must include closing the pay and status gaps. Moreover, increased Black worker representation –on the shop floor, in management, and political priorities – is essential.
However, the political argument for favouring inclusion goes much further. Black workers and their allies must spread fair pay and equality action across the whole TUC membership of 52 unions, representing almost 5.8 million workers.
Therefore, “Black workers have an important role to play in building strong trade unions that not only fight for policies that will revive our economy and the fortunes of workers, but will be in the forefront of the fight against discrimination,” Sullivan concludes.