Black History Month – A Trade Union Necessity

Black History Month (BHM) in the UK originated in 1987 from an initiative Akyaaba Addai Sebbo a special adviser at the Greater London Council (GLC).  Addai  organised the first event know to have taken black that years and subsequently drew up a plan to recognise the contributions of African, Asian and Caribbean people to the economic, cultural and political life in London. Over the years other  school, libraries local Councils and other institution began to recognise October as Black History Month in the UK and started to organise BHM events.

From the early 1990’s TUC regions and trade unions started to organise Black History Month events and within ten years they had become an important part of the calendar for black members groups within the  trade union movement.  However, for much of the trade union movement participation in these events is mainly by black workers and all too often the events are seen by the wider movement as a cultural celebration and an affirmation of the black workers groups within unions.

Black History Month is not without its critics who are uncomfortable with the increasing commercialisation of the event epitomised by this year’s Black History month Live at Wembley in London and because it is seen as ghettoising black history into one month of the year.  After much debate the South East Region of the TUC (SERTUC) who used to do an annual black history month event decided  that they would hold events that had relevance to black history throughout the years.  This led to the development of the SERTUC film which is popular both with trade unionists and working people who are not particularly involved in the movement.  The club mainly show’s films that are about history and lives the black working clash communities in the UK.

Whatever the controversy surrounding black history month it still has an important role to play in the trade union movement.  Many initiatives have been developed within the last 30 years in employment practice and by trade unions to address discriminatory attitudes, structures and practices. Understanding black history is an important part of this process and helps to counter the tendency to view black people as victims rather than as conscious agents for social change. The contribution of black workers to the labour movement, although significant, is largely undocumented. Yet black workers have led struggles for equality, for trade union recognition, for equal pay, dignity and respect at work. It is important that trade unions not only commemorate these struggle and the sacrifices of Black, Asian and other minority ethnic workers but make sure that the whole of the movement is educated about them. Only through doing this can we make hope to maintain and develop the solidarity that is necessary for both black and white working people to fight the oppression and exploitation that we face today.

October 3, 2011 at 11:51 AM Leave a comment

Thoughts on a graduation Part 2

Coming to terms with the new ConDem Governments proposals to slash and burn the UK economy and welfare state has occupied my time for many weeks now but the recent demonstrations by students over the proposed increase in university fees and cuts  to education has made me pause for reflection.

I recently attended the graduation of my youngest daughter from Oxford University. My daughter had warned me that I might be bored because the graduation ceremony would be conducted in latin and I must admit that I was dreading the experience, but being the proud parent I was definitely not going to miss the opportunity to celebrate her achievements.

Ironically, I was fascinated by the experience. Firstly, because despite regular pronouncements that we are a multicultural society and that we have overcome blatant discrimination I was the only black parent on the room. Secondly, that the ceremony itself  was not only the conferring of a degree but also an initiation into an elite club of Oxford graduates (this was reflected in the latin ceremony) and lastly because of the description of an Oxford education as equipping students with the tools to learn, analyse and think about how they would use the knowledge they acquired during their life, in the vice-chancellor’s speech   This for me was a brilliant description of the purpose of education.

I have always bemoaned  the discourse on state education over the last decade has  been more about its ability to train students for work and not educated them for life.  My experience at Oxford starkly demonstrated the gross inequalities in our education system for those  (often  through privilege) that experience the advantages of being educated at an elite university like Oxford and the rest.  It reminded me that those that fought for a universal state education system did so in the belief that all our children be given these opportunities.

In the fight to safeguard our educations system and the opportunities for  wider participation in higher education we need to remember the aims of those that took up the original fight for universal education, to make sure that the opportunities afforded the privileged is available to all and in our fight to defend education access remember that education is not just about equipping our children to be cogs in the wheels of business and make profits for those who already have plenty, but to widen their experience and equip them with the tools to make sense of all aspects of our current realities and beautiful world so that they can build a better tomorrow.

November 26, 2010 at 2:20 AM 5 comments

Wise Words

A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement.

This is how it starts, and, before you know where you are, you’re a fully paid-up member of the rat pack. The price is too high.

Jimmy Reid 1972

August 19, 2010 at 4:46 PM Leave a comment

A Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

(Langston Hughes)

I have just read the programme for of the new ConLib government which makes it perfectly clear that despite their pronouncements about a new politics and the big society, they are firmly on the side of the rich and privileged. I have to say this has come as no surprise to me as I am somebody who rejects the notion that just because technology has speeded up communications and people are able to move around at a faster speed, the world has fundamentally changed.

I have also been watching with interest the unfolding of the labour party leadership race and reading the pronouncements of various senior party figures all assuring us that the party needs to make a change and that the Blair versus Brown or Old labour versus new labour debates need to be forgotten and that like a Chameleon the party needs to metamorphosis itself and adopt a new set of values that will make it clear that it stands for social justice.

Unfortunately all the rhetoric from the leading contender is as a friend put it sounds like marketing on an ailing product. It appears that they just don’t understand that the Tories have recaptured their natural centre right ground and glib phrases about the need to move on to next labour from David Milliband or that we need a new way of doing politics from Ed Milliband might be a turn on the chattering classes who love the political gossip in the Guardian, but doesn’t do anything for the thousands of labour party supporters who feel alienated from the party. Who have either left the Party or like me found it impossible to be active in it because we disagree with what the New Labour Government did on virtually every major policy area. Whether it be going to war in Iraq, the semi privatisation – sorry choice – agenda in schools and hospitals, the failure to address the ever increasing housing problem by building affordable council housing for ordinary families or the pandering to big business or the banks.

You may well ask why I didn’t leave the party and that is a valid question. The reason why I haven’t comes back to my earlier belief that the world has not changed. The problem with new labour and the politicians that have emerged from the ruins is that they believe that everybody has the same interests, that as a country if we prosperous everybody gets rich. They have warped the original pluralist values of the labour party which recognised that the interests of the poor are contrary and different from those occupying positions of power and privilege into some kind of weird notion of diversity pluralism a coalition of a load of single interest groups.

If Labour are going to be revived the the current party leadership need to understand that it is time to get back to the notion that labour exists to represent the needs of working people. That in order to deliver social justice they need to deliver economic justice and that this means tackling the vested interests and privileges of big business and the super rich. The old adage – for a few to be rich many have to be poor – has never been truer than in the modern world and the crime of new labour accepting this and not challenging or attempting to change this fundamental political truth dashed the dreams of huge numbers of people who were voting for real change in 1997. For my part I hope that dream was just deferred and that the labour party can rise to the challenge of re-awaken and reinvigorate this dream or fear that it will as a party become and irrelevance spouting platitudes without meaning.

May 20, 2010 at 6:48 PM 1 comment

The Proof of the Pudding is in the Eating

The recent General Election has been hailed as a historic political night for Black Britain with the election of a record breaking numbers of black candidates being elected to Parliament. The numbers increased from 14 black MP’s to 26 with 15 Labour and 11 Conservatives being elected to the House of Commons.

Whilst the increase in number is welcome we should be cautious about the idea that increasing black representation in the halls of power will automatically result in better representation in Parliament on the issues that affect the daily lives of black people, or that this will result in more attention being paid by the political elite to the personal and institutional racism that results in the impoverishment of our communities.
Progress cannot be measured in numbers, but also has to be measured by the political principles black MP’s not only espouse but act on. Unfortunately all too often in the past Black MP’s have assured their black constituents that they are committed to fight against racism while voting for legislation that has resulted in the introduction of measures that result in even more oppression of our communities by the state.

The reality of the British political system is that it is based on patronage and the House of Commons is no different. The price demanded for those with the ambition to play a role in government is that they hitch their political allegiance to the shirt tails of a key political figure. Hence those entering parliament face a dilemma. Do they vote with the Government in the hope that by climbing the political ladder they can one day hold ministerial office and make a difference or speak up for those that are exploited and oppressed and risk being cast as a political outsider. Although this is not an easy dilemma to solve it is worth remembering that if you cast aside your ideals to get to the top you cannot stand on them later and the idea radical change can come about though individual influence rather than from collective action of those that are oppressed does not stand historical scrutiny.

So whilst we have had a record number of black MP’s in Parliament we should remember that whilst this is a positive change it may not lead to a positive outcome unless we ensure that on matters of race we organise to pressure these MP’s act on behalf of the best interests of the black communities. As Angela Davis so succinctly put it “when the inclusion of black people into the machine of oppression is designed to make that machine work more efficiently, then it does not represent progress at all”.

The test for these MP’s will come almost immediately as all the mainstream political parties are arguing that in order for Britain to become lean and competitive, public debt must be cut and that public spending is out of control. This, despite the fact that the deficit is as a result of bailing the banking sector out during the recent financial crisis.

In a statement to this year’s Black Workers’ Conference the TUC Race Relations Committee highlighted their belief that the threatened cuts across public services will have a heavy impact on working communities with a disproportionate impact on already impoverished black communities which rely on high-quality and accessible public services to look after their families. Specialist services provided by the black voluntary sector are already under threat and it is likely that Black Community Groups face extinction as a result of cuts to grant funding.

For black trade unionists and our families, public sector cuts means lost jobs, depleted services, devastation of the black voluntary sector, fewer rights and a new era of hardship.

Black trade unionists and community activists will need to unite and organise to motivate then black community to resist these cuts and defend public services which our communities are so reliant on to alleviate the effects of the economic recession that we are now experiencing.

As for those new MP’s the proof of the pudding will be if they stand up with us to defend public services or instead abandon our interests in favour of seeking patronage from the parliamentary political machine.

May 11, 2010 at 3:33 PM Leave a comment

Solidarity is Our Strength

Over the last few months race equality has appeared back on the political agenda with politicians arguing that it is social economic status i.e. class rather than race that most affects peoples life chances.  For trade unionists the fact that race and class are related is nothing new and counter posing them as if they are separate is misleading.  After all if you cannot get access to a job, get promotion or are confined to low paid jobs in the labour market because of the colour of your skin then your social economic status is bound to be poor.  This is why tackling institutional racism is so important and dealing with racism in the workplace so vital.

The TUC has recently published a new negotiators guide on tackling racism in the workplace which gives reps and activists some practical advice on how to take forward issues of racism on a collective basis.  However, negotiators’ guides in themselves are not enough and there is a need for trade unionists to rediscover why a collective approach to dealing with racism in the workplace is needed. 

All too often racism is seen as an individual and legal problem that is only to be dealt with when a member complains that they have been discriminated against.  As a result the issue of racism has been externalised from the workplace and the debate about how to deal with race discrimination has become centred on whether unions should apply a 50% plus success criteria when deciding whether to take cases to the employment tribunal.  That is not to say there is not a debate to be had and action to be taken to address the level and competence of individual representation when it comes to unions handling racism cases, however this cannot represent the be all and end all of a trade union strategy for dealing with racism at work.

The Employment Tribunals Annual Report for 2008/9 showed that of 3970 race discrimination cases submitted to the tribunal only 1074 reach employment tribunal stage,  of these 694 were struck out, 236 lost at hearing and only 129 were successful at hearing.  This amounts to a 3% success rate for race discrimination claims which is the success rate for all discrimination claims on an annual basis.  If our strategy for tackling race discrimination in the workplace rests solely on employment law then I believe that it is strategy that is not only bound to fail as the figures indicate, but shows a real lack of ambition as it only seeks to sort out the problems after they have happened, obtain justice after injustice has taken place and obtain compensation for the hurt that has already been inflicted.

There is a need to rediscover the ambition that led black workers to organise in trade unions and that was to stop race discrimination happening in the first place and to redress the historic imbalance and disadvantage that black workers suffer in the labour market.  This can only be done by developing an understanding that race discrimination in the workplace is a collective issue for everybody not just the individual that may have suffered.  It is about involving all members in the fight for fairness at work and a just working environment. This can only happen if there is open and collective discussion in the workplace and the union about the measures and actions that members need take collectively to fight racism, so that pressure can be put on management to address the issues and make systemic and institutional changes in the workplace.  Only then can we say we are tackling racism in the workplace rather than dealing with its casualties. Solidarity is our strength, now more than ever is the time to use it.

May 4, 2010 at 11:13 AM 1 comment

Words Words Words

I haven’t had time to write anything recently but its National Poetry Day so I thought I’d put up one of my favourite poems.

by Lemn Sissay
If there was ever one
Whom when you were sleeping
Would wipe your tears
When in dreams you were weeping;
Who would offer you time
When others demand;
Whose love lay more infinite
Than grains of sand.
If there was ever one
To whom you could cry;
Who would gather each tear
And blow it dry;
Who would offer help
On the mountains of time;
Who would stop to let each sunset
Soothe the jaded mind.
If there was ever one
To whom when you run
Will push back the clouds
So you are bathed in sun;
Who would open arms
If you would fall;
Who would show you everything
If you lost it all.
If there was ever one
Who when you achieve
Was there before the dream
And even then believed;
Who would clear the air
When it’s full of loss;
Who would count love
Before the cost.
If there was ever one
Who when you are cold
Will summon warm air
For your hands to hold;
Who would make peace
In pouring pain,
Make laughter fall
In falling rain.
If there was ever one
Who can offer you this and more;
Who in keyless rooms
Can open doors;
Who in open doors
Can see open fields
And in open fields
See harvests yield.
Then see only my face
In the reflection of these tides
Through the clear water
Beyond the river side.
All I can send is love
In all that this is
A poem and a necklace
Of invisible kisses.

October 8, 2009 at 3:51 PM Leave a comment

Older Posts Newer Posts


Latest Tweets

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.