9 Days Remaining

Friday 7th
posted by Morning Star in Features

The fact that there are more black men and women in senior positions does not mean that our fight is over, writes ROGER McKENZIE

EACH year we look forward to the TUC Black Workers’ Conference. It’s a conference that many of us who still attend fought long and hard to form, an event where the great and the good in the trade union and labour movement came to share their words of wisdom with us.

We were often told that things were improving for black workers and that we needed to have faith that over time, things would get better.

It’s certainly the case that for much of the time that I have been involved in the movement, things did in fact improve.

Trade unions started to take issues of race discrimination far more seriously than the lip service that we had started to get all too used to.

Unfortunately, I think it can be argued that it took the tragic death of Stephen Lawrence to force many to face up to the institutional racism that many black activists, including myself, had stood up to.

It would be wholly wrong not to acknowledge the progress we have made in dealing with racism in Britain.

After all, we now have many more black people in positions of authority, including within trade unions and at the heights of the Labour Party.

We even now have a Labour Party leader who is an unapologetic anti-racist.

However, this increased diversity does not in any sense mean equality.

The view that increased diversity and a greater visibility of some black men and women in senior positions is the answer to our problems is lacking in credibility.

I wouldn’t — and I don’t know anyone who would — say that these are bad things in and of themselves. Far from it in fact.

But increased diversity and visibility fails to get to the heart of the lived existence of black workers in Britain right now.

The fact is that many in our community are facing levels of racism that we have not experienced since the 1970s.

The EU referendum last year and its aftermath — regardless of how people decided to vote — saw a clear upturn in racist abuse and attacks.

Some politicians, on both sides of the Atlantic, have seen fit to play the race card in a very deliberate way so as to embolden and give permission to some to act out their prejudices in a way that they would not have done before.

There is still little progress on the employment front as we point out every year at the Black Workers’ Conference.

If you are a black man, you are significantly more likely to be unemployed than a white counterpart.

Seeing a few more black people sharing more of the spoils does not lead to a trickle down in wealth to the sisters or brothers.

For our sisters, in fact, the likelihood is that you will become trapped in not one but at least two part-time jobs, probably in health and social care and highly likely having to negotiate your way round zero-hours contracts on your way home via the foodbank.

I know that this sounds harsh but the trickle down in wealth to black workers from our more affluent brothers and sisters simply has not occurred.

The hard truth is that there will never be a trickle down to anyone in the working class from those whose sole intention is to make as much money as possible — a feat they can only accomplish at our expense as workers and something that is far easier to achieve if they can set worker against worker.

So how do we break through this charade of diversity?

I would argue that it’s time for us to go back to the audaciousness of our past.

In days gone by, we used black self organisation to build our strategies and to formulate our demands for action. It was never just about occupying a seat at the table — as important as this was and continues to be.

It was and always will be about power: how you get it, what you do with it and how this brings about the fundamental and irreversible shift in society that’s needed for black and white people alike.

To be clear — this isn’t a time for consolidating black self-organisation within the trade union and labour movement; its actually a time for deepening and strengthening what we do.

There is no shortcut to this; it will be, as always, about organising. Not within the comfort zone of just talking with everyone who agrees with us but the hard graft of talking with folks who we haven’t reached yet.

That goes for the people in the black community who have not yet joined in our work as much as it does for those in the white community who do not see Ukip’s racism as a deal-breaker.

So we need to be audacious and understand that we will face criticism, even from the people who we currently see as friends — whether black or white — as those who went before us did.

I think we have no choice but to raise the stakes in the battle against racism; it’s the only way we have ever made any progress. We have little choice in these times and so I ask: what do we have to lose?


• Roger McKenzie is an assistant general secretary of Unison.