Black workers and combating racism – a fighting trade union movement needed!

RMT on strike. (Photo: Paul Mattsson)

Racism in the workplace is a sad reality for many workers. One recent prominent example was the case of Belly Mujinga, a transport worker, in London, Britain, subjected to racist spitting during Covid, who died as a result of the attack. While far less socially acceptable than it was 40 years ago, racism is still an issue and one that is on the rise, with increased reporting of racist attacks, not helped by the right-wing ‘culture wars’ being promoted by the Tories and capitalist media. In a time of economic hardship, the Tories want to set us against each other rather than blame them and the capitalist class for falling living standards, and small racist groupings can try to make headway, recently trying to mobilise people against migrants in hotels, for example.

It was therefore great to see, last November, that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) launched an anti-racism network with the aim to “agitate, educate and organise anti-racist activists, nationally”. Alongside this, it announced its Anti-racism Manifesto and held a conference to help explore ideas for the future of the network.

Workplace practices

In the manifesto, the TUC calls on “employers [to] monitor and review their recruitment, retention, and employment practices”. But we can’t trust the bosses on this. As we argue in the Socialist Party’s Black Workers’ Charter, unions should push for their own oversight of all work practices, with their own objective and transparent criteria to be used, giving elected reps more power in challenging discrimination.

One point is the aim “to monitor cases, to tackle race discrimination”. That’s good, but trade unions shouldn’t just monitor these cases, workers’ organisations should have a say in the investigation and disciplinary process to ensure justice and the right protections are achieved and run their own, democratically convened, investigations where necessary.

The TUC pledges to campaign for mandatory race pay-gap reporting is a positive step towards fighting the racist impacts of the capitalist crisis. Statistics show that Bangladeshi (33%), Pakistani (29%), and Black (25%) workers are more likely to be earning below a living wage than white workers (20%). And as workers in the UK from migrant backgrounds are disproportionately likely to be working in lower-paid sectors, that promise must also be joined with a campaign for inflation-proof pay rises, as well as a minimum wage of at least £15 an hour now, rather than the TUC’s current 2030 deadline.


While their call to increase the ‘representation’ of Black workers at all levels of union structures is welcome, it’s important that these leaders truly represent the interests of, and be democratically accountable to, Black workers. As we see with Tory MPs like Kemi Badenoch and Priti Patel, merely being of the same race as oppressed people doesn’t mean you’ll fight for an anti-racist programme. As part of maintaining the link with those they represent, all elected officials should receive a worker’s wage.

People are most attracted to trade unions when they are seen to be fighting on their side, and trade unions can support our fight in many areas. A fighting, campaigning trade union will attract Black workers. For example, the Unite campaign to save bus routes in London benefits Black and migrant workers the most, because those cuts are more likely to be in their neighbourhoods, and they are more likely to be both working on the buses and using them.

Collective action

There have been countless cases where discrimination against a single union member has been taken up collectively by their fellow workers, through action up to and including striking. For example in 2019, Royal Mail workers in the Communication Workers Union walked out at the Bootle and Seaforth delivery office, followed by solidarity action in Cheshire, against the racist abuse of a Muslim worker by a manager. By taking up these cases in a collective way, unions can attract those already fighting against oppression. These cases also demonstrate to people that fighting against oppression isn’t just the responsibility of the oppressed, but that a united working-class movement is much more powerful than an individualist or separatist one.

Shared struggle in unions can unite the working class, as was seen in the Smithfields Tar Heel factory strike in 2006 in North Carolina, USA. Latino, Black and white workers recognised their shared interests and engaged in union action against the firing of Latino employees. That cut across the divisive racist narratives created by their real enemy, the bosses.

Trade unions and communities

While many trade union members were at the mass Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, their union banners were not. That was a missed opportunity that the TUC anti-racism network could help correct. Unfortunately, except for a few demands related to public policy and the hostile environment, the TUC manifesto doesn’t advocate enough for trade unions to use their organising power to support campaigns for justice outside of the workplace. Their plan for “building and improving links between our trade unions and Black communities” should have a wider purpose than only making “recruitment practices more relevant to Black workers”. The foreword of the manifesto refers to how trade unions supported the Stephen Lawrence campaign (see Stephen Lawrence’s racist murder 30 years on – what’s changed?), but that focus should have continued into the manifesto.

The trade union movement has a long history of solidarity action. As part of a campaign against slavery in 1862, Lancashire mill workers refused to accept cotton that had been picked by US slaves. They did this despite mass unemployment and poverty because, as one London trade union stated, “The cause of labour and liberty is one all over the world”.

The TUC should coordinate and support local trades councils and union branches to help them engage with communities and support local campaigns. But that doesn’t mean we should just wait for the TUC to do these things: Socialist Party members are active in our trade union branches and local trades councils, organising and advocating for these actions at all levels of the trade union movement.

For example, following the recent attack on a Black girl outside her school in Surrey, Socialist Party members in Surrey Unison branch argued for a meeting to develop a united front against racism and discrimination, which was also then raised at Surrey trades council.

Opposing the far right – jobs and homes, not racism

By bringing together working-class people in a shared struggle against bosses, trade unions are in a unique position to counteract the racist narratives that the far-right attempt to spread. This was seen in the Lindsey Oil Refinery dispute in 2009 when workers were faced with being laid off and replaced by lower-paid Italian workers. This was because of the European Union posted workers directive which allowed bosses in one country to hire EU migrant workers on the lower wages of their home country. The British National Party used this as an opportunity to leaflet outside the workplace spreading the racist idea that it was the Italian workers that were the problem. But trade union activists in the GMB, including Socialist Party members, were able to cut across this with a fight for jobs and rights for both sets of workers.

The TUC should act on the “jobs and homes, not racism” campaign agreed at the 2018 TUC Congress, proposed in a resolution moved by Socialist Party members. We then produced a model motion for union branches which argued: “If the trade unions mobilised with energy and with clear demands to fight for jobs and homes and to kick out the Tories, we’d have hundreds of thousands on the streets and could cut across the appeal of far-right leaders.” This approach would have the potential to mobilise much greater numbers than those that attended the recent TUC/Stand up to Racism demonstrations on UN anti-racism day.

In the context of the mobilisation of the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) in the late 2010s, the motion also said that branches should act to get “workers taking all legal steps (up to and including strike action) to disrupt all attempts to organise for the purposes of extending the rhetoric of the DFLA or any similar organisation.”

Now, in the face of a historic cost-of-living crisis, such a class appeal is even more important. As the recent protests and violent attacks at hotels with migrants have showed, small racist groups are attempting to attract people living in poverty and hit hard by the cost-of-living crisis, struggling in poor, expensive housing, to reactionary, racist and xenophobic ideas. Just as anti-Muslim ideas were raised by the main capitalist parties, including Tony Blair’s New Labour, to justify the invasion of Iraq twenty years ago, today anti-migrant hate has been spread in a desperate attempt to save the Tory party from its crisis.

If unions formed links with existing networks and groups on a local level, including local Black Lives Matter groups and community organisations, it would help facilitate fast and large mobilisations when necessary. Trade unions should offer and organise for safe stewarding for counter-protests against the far right.

Socialist alternative needed

Capitalist politicians will continue to whip up racism in the future so the TUC anti-racism network must not limit itself to reacting against racism but fight to end it. This can only be done with socialist policies, on pay, jobs, homes, services, renationalisation of services, and so on.

Many of the small numbers of working-class people who are attracted to far-right ideas are alienated by austerity, downtrodden by capitalism, and in reality are crying out for an ‘anti-establishment’ alternative.

Jeremy Corbyn’s politics at least began to give people an alternative to immiserating austerity, a programme “for the many” that could begin to unite working-class people and undercut support for the far right. But now, Keir Starmer’s New Labour is wiping out every trace of that in the Labour Party. Starmer says there is “not a great deal between the major parties on immigration”. The TUC and unions should now take steps towards a new mass workers’ party with a socialist programme to end capitalism and racism. That should start with backing Corbyn to stand, along with other banned Labour candidates and trade unionists, as part of a workers’ list of candidates for the next general election.

Fighting racism in the workplace

  • We demand that the trade union movement fights against the racism which remains endemic in our workplaces
  • Job security – no forced redundancies. Trade union action to fight any job losses and cuts in the workforce
  • End the race pay gap. A Trades Union Congress (TUC) study found that black workers with the same qualifications as other workers are more likely to be employed at lower rates of pay. For an equal rate of pay for the job
  • Fair reporting systems, free from judgement. Any type of racial abuse, verbal or physical, needs to be reported and acted on by management immediately. All incidents must be recorded, and the log of incidents to be reviewed by elected shop stewards and the trade unions. Regular public data must be made available showing the number of staff experiencing grievances, or facing disciplinary by ethnicity
  • All workforces to organise anti-racism training for all staff, and mandatory ‘unconscious bias’ training for managers – overseen by elected shop stewards and trade unions
  • Ensure election of equality officers in trade union branches
  • Trade union oversight over the recruitment and promotion process
  • Defend the right to protest. Scrap the anti-trade union laws and the anti-democratic legislation

The above demands were published in the Socialist Party’s ‘Black Workers’ Charter: A programme to fight racism’, published in February 2021.

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April 2023