The fall out of the EU Referendum campaign and subsequent Brexit dominated the agenda at the Black Workers’ Conference in Leicester on Tuesday. With no less than six motions debated on the subject, most of which highlighting the widening divisions caused in communities since the result.
Senior Deputy General Secretary Tony Kearns highlighted the role the media played throughout the campaign, “The media were obsessed with the anti-immigration message dominating front covers of national newspapers, which led to an upsurge in disgraceful and abhorrent racism”.
Tony warned that the nasty, racist rhetoric used throughout the EU referendum had already shown itself in the months prior, during the London mayoral election, “the mayoral election, as I can only describe was the most racist, xenophobic election campaign I have ever witnessed. To be fair to London they rejected the racist scare-mongering and rightly returned Sadiq Khan as their mayor”.
He went on to explain how the language that the government have been using creates a divide in society which they use as a political tool which he described as a classic case of “divide and rule”. To “separate one group of society from another and then use blame to then turn them against each other”.
Tony insisted the blame lay heavily at the feet of the government, “This is where the political dimension takes shape. We have a government which has already begun to show it is wobbly on austerity and have created a scarcity of resources. A scarcity of resources in cash, public sector jobs, the NHS through underfunding, the education system by not employing enough teachers and they lead you to believe the fault lies with immigrants”.
“It was not immigration which brought the financial crash in 2008, it was the fault of an unregulated banking system. So we have to understand, that some of the problems we face on the ground as workers and particularly those workers who are of BAME origin, these are not accidents, they are done deliberately, these are the challenges we face and must overcome“.
Tony paid tribute to the work the CWU continues to do to tackle such issues through its association with the Stand up to Racism campaign of which CWU General Secretary Dave Ward is the co-chair and he is the treasurer. At a recent Stand up to Racism conference held in London which was addressed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, there were over 1,500 in attendance. Tony described it as “one of the largest anti-racism events of that type in decades”. The message from the event was clear, that people have had enough and were seeking to introduce new rules, “which will take the fight against racism into our workplaces and into our communities”.
Tony completed his speech by praising the new BAME officers toolkit which he described as “an important and historic step” in terms of the unions’ approach to outlining the role of a BAME officer. He continued “The toolkit sets out a charter of what the unions’ position is and how as BAME officers we can end segregation in both the workplace and society”.
Head of equality Linda Roy, denounced the divisive and inflammatory language used throughout the Brexit campaign and quoted Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote, “The Brexiteers by framing the debate as ‘We want our country back’ have made immigrants the enemy and the occupier who need to be exported”.
Linda warned delegates that a rise in xenophobia and racism hate crimes are happening not just in the UK, but across the whole of Europe where the far-right movement is on the rise. This she explained was a theme which underpinned the recent Tory Party conference last week where, “negative rhetoric on the economic impact of immigrants was used during the Brexit campaign was repeated again and again”. She reiterated the union’s position on the EU referendum and reminded delegates, “this union campaigned to remain in the EU. We recognise the positive and invaluable contribution generations of immigrants have made to the economy of the UK”.
With the Brexit debate aside, Linda took the opportunity to refer to the unions’ long term Proportionality project. This was set up to reflect the diversity of the membership and encourage more BAME officers within branches. Linda explained how over the last couple of years a number of education, training and mentoring initiatives have been put in place to address this imbalance. “Since the incorporation of the position of the BAME officer into the Branch constitution in 2014, the number of BAME officers has increased from just 18 to now 58 officers”.
RAC chair Amarjite Singh explained the responsibility that the RAC has to the ongoing proportionality project and how they have been, “going into branches and regions and asking how we can help and support them and encourage more BAME officers into branches”. He assured delegates that the RAC were still developing the BAME officers mentoring initiative and that completing this was of high importance to “keep the profile high”.
There was strong support for motions on industrial and national issues including the increasing of BAME membership within the CWU. Sajid Shaikh, of Birmingham and District Amal, moved the motion by urging delegates to move the BAME agenda forward “there is ample opportunity for people to now maximise BAME membership and officer roles”.
Another motion recognised the underemployment of BAME workers who are a third more likely to be underemployed than white workers according to a new TUC report and also face lower pay and are often underrepresented in senior roles. Ryan Rochester of Coventry branch stressed “We need to highlight this issue and get to grips with the inequality in and out of employment”.
Winston Richards from the RAC added “We know that the trade union movement is about fighting inequality, but there is a section of our workforce, identified as BAME workers that suffer a disproportionate amount of disadvantages by the structures in society today”.Delegates voted unanimously for a more in depth analysis into tackling inequality and challenging it, wherever it takes place.
Other motions that were adopted included calls for the Race Advisory Committee (RAC) to continue its robust education and mentoring programmes for BAME groups in the face of extreme government cuts and programme closures. With the government set to completely dissolve the TUC education budget by August 2017. It is essential the CWU continues to meet the challenges of how we train reps in the face of dramatic declines in funding.
Conference also marked the 40th anniversary of the Grunwick dispute by discussing the significant role the union played in showing solidarity with the mainly Asian female workforce. Guest speaker Norman Candy was joined by Colum Maloney – Cricklewood Branch Secretary at the time of the dispute – who reminded delegates “The strike was a success because we had a just cause and the support of the public”.
CWU Retired member Norman Candy, began by describing what it was like to be a trade unionist in the 1970’s. “Around 50% of all workers in the country were represented by trade unions, which is vastly different from today. There were union-joint-government bodies which discussed wider political issues such as the economy and investment. Such was the important status then of the trade unions at this time”.
Norman went on to provide delegates with a specific insight into the foundations of the dispute“Grunwick was a film processing laboratory in North London, which used to send out developed photographs to customers. This factory employed a mainly Asian female workforce and they were treated terribly. Their pay was almost 50% less than any manual worker in London would expect, with restricted meal relief and toilet breaks. There was a person in their called Mrs. Desai, who was small in stature but could fight like a tiger. The employers had sacked her colleague for ‘not working hard enough’ so Mrs. Desai stood up from her station, walked to the door and started picketing the building. She was then joined by her son and within a short period of time, she was joined by the majority of the workforce”.
“Our colleagues at Cricklewood, including Colum Maloney who was branch secretary, refused to go through the picket line and deliver the business mail, which effectively stopped that factory from being able to operate. The UPW in solidarity called on Royal Mail workers to suspend all mail deliveries to the business. However, it became a political embarrassment for the government and they started to pressure the UPW into lifting the boycott of work”.
“The union were threatened with financial punishment and government intervention and eventually the boycott was lifted. Still, Colum and the Cricklewood branch stood defiant in support with the Grunwick workers but eventually had to surrender in the face of mounting pressure. The actual dispute continued for another year until eventually the workers of Grunwick had to accept there was nowhere else they could go. This was a turning point in trade union history”.
This surrender of the boycott was very difficult for the members of the Cricklewood branch who knew the striking workers of Grunwick personally by now and were sympathetic to their cause. Colum Maloney described the moment he had to tell Mrs. Desai and her colleagues that the boycott had been lifted, “we apologised to the workers, and we apologised to Mrs. Desai, it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life”
The outcome of the dispute is of little consequence compared to what the heroic stand itself represented. Some suggest that it was a turning point in the way that BAME people were considered in the world of work going forward and it is the responsibility of the union to continue this legacy.