UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Organising workers and the question of race

Within recent memory part of the substantive debate around trade unions and equality was centred on the question of the extent to which white workers were seen to benefit from racism and working class men to benefit from the oppression of women. That debate has moved on significantly in the face of the collapse of trade union density. From the high of the 1970s with 13 million union members in the UK to the present day with 6 million there is less debate about the `social location` of members and much more about the sheer absence of members.

Dr Jane Holgate (Leeds University) in her review of `Racism, class and the Radicalised Outsider` (Satnam Virdee Glasgow University) draws on her vast knowledge of organising to remind us that those debates still have something concrete to say about the decline of union membership. In particular, in this work, with regard to the paradigm of race and class. Set against a background of two widely accepted trends – most trade union members are female and proportionally workers from an ethnic background are more likely to be trade union members – it is essential that organisers and activists consider the implications of this question.

The claim is that unions with wider social agendas and less focus on traditional claims (based on wages and pay) are more likely to grow. To go further, the claim is also that organising campaigns based on wider social objectives taken from workers of different races and cultures represent a better chance of success.

The evidence, in Holgate`s view, comes from the positive impact of the raising of `women`s issues` around equality and fairness. UNISON, in this view, with its emphasis on proportionality, its prioritising of equal pay and low wage campaigns has shown that gender issues can become the union issues with a positive impact on growth and the relevance of a union. So why not the same with other groups within the working class?

There are many challenges for black workers that go beyond those of white workers. For black women the experiences of oppression and exploitation weigh even heavier. Organising around those issues cannot fail to be part of a good organising campaign – where the workers themselves identify those issues as both deeply felt and widely felt. Good organising relies heavily on listening skills. Listening and reflecting back helps to form the aims of the campaign. Evidence shows that many of these issues will remain the ones that are common to most workers regardless of race and gender. Zero hours contracts are the biggest scourge in work right now.

Black workers and women will suffer from this disproportionately, but a campaign that addresses that element is more likely to fail. Conversely, a campaign that does not highlight and investigate that element could also fail. The interplay between class and race in a campaign becomes very important. Organisers and unions have to be able to plug in to the energy of anger that drives a workforce forward and that requires intelligence and knowledge of the dynamics of exploitation in that particular context. When organising with a majority women workforce and/or a majority black workforce it is common sense to have that at the centre of a campaign, in terms of aims, strategy, training, resources and tactics.

More and more workers are on zero hour contracts, are working for agencies, are self- employed, have more than one job or simply stuck on a minimum wage. This is unrecognisable from the UK of only 10 years ago. These issues are class based trade union issues that will be the key to sustainable union growth. Organising tactics and aims will always need to be flexible and worker led. The debate about the interplay of class and race in the workplace takes nothing away from the need for unions to organise, grow and become powerful.