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Review – Trade Union Conference: Fighting for anti-racist workplaces

Review – Trade Union Conference: Fighting for anti-racist workplaces

Photo by Y K

On Saturday the 4th of February Stand Up to Racism an anti-racist mobilisation action group, alongside the Trades Union Congress (TUC), hosted the one-day Trade Union Conference, “Fighting for anti-racist workplaces”, at SOAS University. The conference took place against the current back drop of national strikes across multiple sectors that have gripped the nation, including those by Teachers, Ambulance workers, Nurses, Rail workers, university staff and at the end of this month, Junior Doctors.

The timing of this conference was therefore well placed. This reflective review has been written, with the hope of addressing the key themes, as they emerged throughout the day, and as we have understood them. The article is structured in a way, that addresses three broad themes, and then uses them to give tips as to how you can go about fighting for an anti-racist workplace or to tackle other forms of social injustices.


Terminology - Black

Four Screen, 2008

The first place we start, which may be a contentious point, is in reference to how the term Black was being used during the opening of the conference. Whilst it is important to address the experience of racism faced by black union members, the focus solely on this group, at a conference positioned as fighting for an anti-racism workplace, did two things. The first suggests that racism, was only experienced by and about black bodies and reinforces a black and white colour divide, with black people and those of African and Caribbean descent, at the eternal bottom of the rung, and other minority racialised groups, above in the hierarchy of race.

Focusing on black workers in itself would not have been problematic, if the conference stated that it was addressing anti-black racism. This term can be referenced, especially when taking into account the nuances of racism by different communities. However, under the present conference title and the way in which racism was referenced only in relation to black workers, by default, it omitted other racialised minority groups from the discussion. Indeed, it seemed slightly at odds, for two panellists in the opening plenary session, Kudsia Batool, the Chair of TUC Head of Equalities and Riz Hussein, a member of the TUC Anti Racist Taskforce, to speak about black workers, with no reference to their experience, as members of other minority racialised groups. In some ways, this harked back to the use of political blackness as an umbrella term ethnic minorities from both Black African and Caribbean descent and Asian communities in the 80s, used in solidarity to fight against racism.

Margaret Greer, the Unison National Equality Officer, then spoke about the challenges of achieving race equality, especially where support had fell short, even for members within the unions themselves. This was an interesting point made by Greer, in a speech that was reminiscent of the sentiment shared by anti-slavery and women’s rights campaigner, Sojourner Truth’s in “Ain’t I a Woman?” delivered at the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio. Greer reminds us that unions are made for the workers and that if their needs were not being met, members had the right to hold the unions to account. Racism as we learnt, can seep through all aspects of the workplace, even inside the very support systems for workers, that unions have been built on.

Key advice 1:

1. Be clear on terminology. If the focus is on specific identity groups and the impact of racism, then state it as such. For example, “black anti-racism”, would be different to, ‘Asian anti-racism”, or from “indigenous anti-racism.”

2. Whilst it may be true that black people experience disproportionate levels of racism in certain contexts more than other minority groups, and there will be other times, when this will not be the case, you should also consider the impact of absorbing and being positioned at the bottom of the rung, or of others being sympathetic to one’s situation, as if outside such systems of oppression. We are reminded here, of two instances of liberational thinking. The first is from Reverend Jesse Jackson, the civil rights activist, when he said in 2013, that “you need to abandon your minority complex and adopt a majority complex.” The second is from what race educator, Dr Joy DeGruy describes as ‘post-traumatic slave syndrome’, and the challenge to undo the impact of the legacies of slavery, and its effect on the mental health and well-being of the African American subject, and White Americans too.


To read the full article, “Every Statement Needs a Platform: Guidance For When to Make a Statement”, you must be a PILAA Member.

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