Monday, 28 March 2011

Trade Union Congress 26th March against the cuts demonstration was a huge success - except where diversity and anti racism are concerned.

Without doubt history was made as the TUC March fired the first real salvo across the bows of the Coalition Government. With numbers far exceeding expected numbers the clear message to this Government is that if your going to pursue this reckless agenda of dismantling the NHS, cutting thousands of public sector jobs and closing vital services then you will do so in the face of widespread opposition and yesterday is just the start.

The numbers were impressive and will no doubt there will be those in the TUC high command who will be patting each other on the back and rightly so. The turnout was truly a fantastic achievement.

As I marched with a contingent from Black Activist Rising Against The Cuts, (BARAC) Latin American Community Against the Cuts, AJAMU, NUS Black Students Campaign it was evident that black people were well represented on the march itself.

Of course thousands of black people will be disproportionately affected by these cuts not just in terms of cuts to jobs and services but the inevitable rise in racism that we are witnessing in an attempt by sections of government and right wing press to scapegoat black communities.

That’s why it was a huge disappointment to see a row of white faces standing with TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber at the start of the demonstration. For a TUC movement that has a large number of black workers within its ranks, with a black voluntary sector out in force alongside activist organisations such as BARAC the TUC failed to represent the diversity of its own movement.

The UK is a rainbow nation, the working classes particularly so and for a historic march taking place in the most diverse city in Europe the fact that the TUC commitment to anti racism was not reflected in the starting line up sent all the wrong messages to the wider public and too black workers in the Labour movement.

The TUC failure in this regard might be seen as an unthinking error. But there is an increasing level of evidence that the issue of anti racist practice and commitment to black self-organisation and representation within the TUC and Labour movement and has been sidelined reflecting a general and growing trend within the country itself. Actions on issues of race and anti racism have dropped of the priority political agenda for the TUC.

This is despite the excellent work of some Unions such as the PCS who are regarded as an exemplar union on these issues and whose General Secretary Mark Serwotka remains uniquely progressive on these issues.
Yet other than a few policy statements and supporting the fight against the likes of the extreme right wing such BNP and the EDL the TUC has no clear leadership or strategy for tackling racism in the workplace that blights the lives of thousands of black workers. Fighting fascism is important but when it comes to racism the volume end of the business is the racism faced by black workers in the workplace. That’s where black peoples lives are ruined.

In addition there are examples where black workers have to fight their own Union because of the resistance to supporting their efforts to challenge employer racism.

This reflects a systemic weakness of Unions in that despite years of high profile political commitment to fighting racism too many black sections of Unions experience internal resistance. The notable exception is the PCS who track record is one of empowering black PCS black members and that is a model that other Unions should adopt.

There are virtually no General Secretaries who are black and in the current climate we are set to see black membership of Unions will inevitably fall.

The TUC has no comprehensive strategy to promote black representation in the Labour movement. I believe that the TUC and the Labour movement are failing to effectively represent thousands of black workers. I see them every single day many of them report the same experience Union shop stewards who have little understand of the realities of racism in the workplace or wider society and little understanding of the law in relation to race.

These strategic and political failures were reflected on the 26th March. Few Unions apart from the PCS,  really promoted anything specifically mobilising their black members and/or the wider black community.

The TUC claimed the march was going to be a unique coalition between community groups and trade unionists reflecting all those communities are being most affected by spending cuts.

First and foremost, the fact that black workers are being hugely disproportionately affected by these cuts alongside black communities who represent the poorest sections of our nation, added to the reality that scapegoating and racism is on the rise, should have resulted in the TUC adopting a clear and resolute anti racist approach to these cuts. It did not.

Although the March itself was fabulously diverse, once we arrived at Hyde Park the vast majority of speakers were white men and virtually no one mentioned racism or the fact that their employers were unfairly targeting black workers. No one mentioned that black workers are taking the biggest hit in terms of redundancies and black communities in terms of cuts to Council services. Independent black organisations or community groups were largely excluded only offered tokenistic speaking slots on a platform that was overwhelming white.

Racist welfare benefit reform was not mentioned, black unemployment was not mentioned, and disproportionate impact was not mentioned. Government failure to adhere to equality legislations was not mentioned; the rise of the EDL was not mention nor was attacks on multiculturalism save for the contribution of the one black man who spoke at Hyde Park: Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote.

Simon did a fantastic job and gave an incredibly rousing speech but OBV as a charity takes no position on the cuts as required by charity law and his view as communicated to the TUC was that BARAC, with a national network in seven cities and representing thousands of black people should be speaking in his stead. Woolley went on to name check BARAC myself and my co chair Zita Holbourne for the work we have done in mobilising black communities attend the march.

In the run up to the 26th March many representations were made on behalf of BARAC from Trade Unions, individuals and community organisations to the office of Brendan Barber requesting that BARAC be allowed to speak. None received even the simple courtesy of a reply.

Of course politics were involved too. BARAC opposed all cuts and refuses to endorse the Labour Party position as endorsed by the TUC of reducing the depth and speed of the cuts. We believe that a combination of collecting taxes from corporations and the super wealthy, cancelling the Trident nuclear submarine and bringing the troops home from Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya could easily clear the national debt without recourse to cuts.

If the TUC is to avoid the kind of splintering of the anti cuts movement it cannot simply adopt wholesale the Labour Party line on the cuts. Yesterday was as much an opportunity to influence the Labour Party as much as it was this terrible Condem Coalition Government.

Not only did the TUC Hyde Park platform fail to reflect the real diversity of the Labour movement, they also failed to emphasise the dangers of resurgent racism in the current economic climate, failed to acknowledge the unique disproportionality impacting upon black women and failed to treat a respected organisation like BARAC with a modicum of respect .

This comes at a time where many black workers are complaining in a range of trade unions that when they suffer racism in the workplace and seek to challenge that racism their Union representation usually has little or no understanding of the dynamics of racism or the complexities of the law around workplace discrimination when it comes to race.

I meet thousands of black workers who tell me on a regular basis that there Union let them down when it came to challenging racism and now that these cuts are impacting massively upon low paid black workers some Unions seem content to let their black members take the hit.

Critically Unions are reluctant to legally challenge the failure of public sector employers to conduct an Equality Impact Assessment where it is clear that cuts to public services are racist in their effects.

The TUC march was indeed a wonderful event and there is much we can congratulate ourselves on. However the sad reality is that the TUC consciously decided to minimise black involvement and representation and it is my view that this is reflective of the fact some of the TUC high command and affiliated Unions are failing to challenge racism in their own organisations and effectively represent black workers facing workplace discrimination.

For the TUC and many Unions have a dark secret lurking within, and that is their desperate failure to challenge racism and to robustly represent millions of black members affected by these cuts.

That’s why BARAC will be calling a national conference to discuss these critical issues and explore how we as black workers and community organisations will respond to the crisis that faces black communities and agree on the strategies for tackling racism in the 21st century.

With racism on the rise in the UK and Europe and the need to consolidate a clear anti racist Labour movement strategy we need to rally what’s left of the black voluntary and community sector and reinforce the need for unity between communities.

We need to set a race equality agenda and strategy fit for the 21st century. The TUC and Unions need to step up the fight against racism and adopt clear strategies and priorities to promote black representation, effectively challenge workplace racism and reach out to independent black community organisations. BARAC will now begin to initiate these discussions with the TUC in the hope that we can work on these issues together. Lets hope the TUC and the Labour aristocracy do not in hubris and arrogance dismiss BARAC.

Lee Jasper
Co Chair of BARAC.