Indian Workers Association

After Grunwick: Trade unions and anti-racism in the 1980s

This is the latest post looking at the history of the turbulent relationship between the British labour movement and black and Asian workers in the post-war era, following on from posts on the Imperial Typewriters strike in mid-1974 and the Grunwick strike between 1976 and 1978. While Grunwick is seen as a turning point, there were still significant problems for black and Asian workers in the labour movement. These were exacerbated by the attacks on the trade unions (and the black and Asian communities) by the Thatcher government in the early 1980s. This post is based on extracts from my forthcoming book with Brill/Haymarket, British Communism and the Politics of Race.

Although the Grunwick strike ended in defeat, it has been celebrated by the British labour movement ever since as compelling narrative of class unity. As McDowell, Anitha and Pearson have argued:

the strike has become constructed as a iconic moment in the history of the labour movement, the moment when the working class recognised the rights of women and minority workers to join a union as part of the British working-class movement.[1]

However the strike did not signal an end to the problematic relationship between the trade unions and black and Asian workers, particularly as the trade unions, as well as Britain’s black and Asian communities, came under attack in the early 1980s.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many black and Asian workers remained dissatisfied with the trade unions, particularly for their limited reaction to the problem of racism faced by these workers. In 1977, the PEP (Political and Economic Planning) report, Racial Disadvantage in Britain, outlined the problems that black workers faced in their relationship with the trade union movement, noting that while the 1970s had seen developments in most of the trade unions adopting anti-racist and equal opportunities policies, there was ‘a contrast between this formal policy and its practical results’.[2] In interviews with eight of the largest unions in Britain, the report found ‘little evidence that any definite action had been taken’ by the trade union leadership to combat incidents of racial discrimination inside the unions.[3] The report revealed that the trade union leaders were likely to ignore cased of racial discrimination unless they reached the highest echelons of the unions’ complaint structures and as ‘very few complaints filtered up to head-office level,… leaders tended to interpret this as meaning that there was very little trouble of this kind.’[4] The trade unions, along with the Labour Party, were spurred into anti-racist action by the mid-to-late 1970s, as seen with the large scale mobilisation of trade union support for the Grunwick strike and the labour movement backing of the Anti-Nazi League. However as Phizacklea and Miles argued in 1987, the anti-racist campaigning by the trade unions (primarily the TUC) and the Labour Party ‘seemed to die away with the collapse of the National Front vote in the general election of 1979’.[5]

In August 1976, the TUC formed its Race Relations Advisory Committee and in 1981 created a Black Workers Charter, but several studies conducted in the 1980s revealed that these initiatives had a limited impact upon the efforts of the trade unions to combat racism in the workplace and within their own organisations. Phizacklea and Miles cited a 1981 investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality into the AUEW that it was the policy of the union to condemn racial discrimination, ‘no specific instructions about how such a policy should be implemented had been provided for either officials or members’ and this principled opposition to racism was ‘contradicted by both the open expression of racism’ by some union members and ‘the refusal of the officials to take any action to combat that racism’.[6] Gloria Lee stated that when interviewed, black members ‘saw themselves as grossly under-represented within their unions’ and ‘felt that as black members, they [were] more poorly served buy their union than white members’.[7] John Wrench cited in his 1986 paper that certain acts of explicit racism were still occurring in the trade union movement in the early 1980s, but there was also ‘the more passive collusion of union officers in practices which were discriminatory in their outcomes, and a reluctance to change these practices’, such as the use of word-of-mouth to hire people, which worked greatly against non-white applicants.[8]

The traditional position of the trade unions was to have no specific policies to assist black workers integrate into the labour movement, arguing for ‘equal treatment’ for both black and white union members.[9] Despite the actions taken in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as the aforementioned initiatives by the TUC, the ‘equal treatment’ argument still remained with the trade unions. In 1977, the PEP report stated that some union officials justified their poor record on combating racism ‘by saying they make no distinction between black and white and that this means that no special action can be taken’.[10] Phizacklea and Miles claimed that this was still the case in the 1980s and declared ‘[r]acism can masquerade in the guise of colour-blindness, when there is clear evidence of cases containing discrimination and allegations of lack of support for Asian and Caribbean members from their unions.’[11]

As part of the TUC’s efforts to combat racism, special education classes were created to inform trade unionists about the impact of racism upon black workers and how to tackle this, but critics asserted that as these classes were voluntary to attend, it had not reached the right audience and was not well supported by the unions.[12] Wrench argued that ‘those…who would benefit most from attending such courses tend to stay away as they feel that such provisions are a waste of time and money’.[13] A 1984 report by the Greater London Council’s Anti-Racist Trade Union Working Group found that the GMWU, ACTT and NUT all held equal opportunities and ‘racism awareness’ training courses, but only the AUEW-TASS ran any ‘positive action’ programmes, which supported ‘appointing officials with ethnic background, or females, to the union’.[14]

John Wrench wrote in 1986 about this GLC report, stating:

The findings of the GLC survey confirm the suspicions of many activists that despite the history of disputes and struggles, the research, the educational material, and the prosecutions, there remains a body of trade union officers who simply do ot understand – or are wunwilling to acknowledge – what racism and racial equality are, what their effects are, how they operate, and what sorts of measures are needed to oppose them.[15]

However most of these reports from the 1980s pointed to areas where the trade unions were progressing on issues of ‘race’. Phizacklea and Miles wrote that ‘we have witnessed some concern amongst some unions to increase the participation and representation of Asian and Caribbean workers and restatement of a commitment amongst the same union to tackle racism within their own ranks and the wider society.’[16] John Wrench also noted that in the era of austerity and the Thatcherite onslaught against the trade union movement, ‘there has been an awareness of common cause and common interest’ between black and white workers and that this had been ‘part of one positive development of recent years – the increasing organisation of black workers and their success in making their influence felt within the labour movement.’[17]

This eventually led to the establishment of black sections or caucuses within several trade unions, as well as the Labour Party, which were seen as highly controversial at the time. Despite opposition from Labour Opposition leader Neil Kinnock, the black sections motion was passed by the 1983 Labour Party conference and the Party, alongside several public service unions, established black caucuses or sections as part of their internal structures. In a 1985 roundtable organised by Marxism Today, Stuart Hall and the Indian Workers Association (Southall) General Secretary Vishnu Sharma (also a leading CPGB member) argued that black caucuses and sections were beneficial for the labour movement, while Race & Class editor, A. Sivanandan, described them as a ‘distraction from the struggle that the black community has to face today’.[18] Hall countered this by saying:

If you say that the real problem is maintaining the momentum of the black struggle then I can see that the black sections are a distraction. But if you are concerned, an I am concerned, about the question of the white working class, you have to recognise that the Labour Party is a majority working class party. It has hegemonised the working class since the beginning of the twentieth century, whether we like it or not… So the black struggle must have some idea about how to get into that organisationally, how to transform that organisation…[19]

He argued that bringing the black struggle to the Labour Party was a ‘double struggle which is both with and against’ and required taking the fight to the Labour Party’s constituent elements, as well as the TUC –‘blowing it apart from the inside’.[20] To transform the ideas and actions of the labour movement, Hall proposed, one had to ‘mak[e] the internal structured organisation of the labour movement aware of the impact and history of racism.’[21]

Despite their initial controversy, the general political consensus is that the black caucuses within the trade unions and the black sections inside the Labour Party proved useful for promoting an awareness of issues of racial discrimination and equal opportunity within the labour movement, remaining until today. At a time when Thatcherism seemed at its hegemonic peak and the labour movement was at one of its lowest ebbs, the formation of the black caucuses/sections in the face of fierce resistance was a victory that buoyed those in the anti-racist struggle.

nalgo-blame-thatcher-not-ted

[1] McDowell, Linda, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson 2014, ‘Striking Narratives: Class, Gender and Ethnicity in the “Great Grunwick Strike”, London, UK. 1976-1978’, Women’s History Review, 23, 4, p. 600.

[2] Smith, David J. 1977, Racial Disadvantage in Britain: The PEP Report, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, p. 193.

[3] Ibid., p. 202.

[4] Ibid., p. 204.

[5] Phizacklea, Annie and Robert Miles 1987, ‘The British Trade Union Movement and Racism’, in The Manufatcure of Disadvantage, edited by Gloria Lee and Ray Loveride, Milton Keynes: Open University, p. 119.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lee, Gloria 1987, ‘Black Members and Their Unions’, in The Manufacture of Disadvantage, edited by Gloria Lee and Ray Loveridge, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, p. 151.

[8] Wrench, John Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, Policy Papers in Ethnic Relations no. 5, 1986, pp. 11-2.

[9] Wrench, John and Satnam Virdee, ‘Organising the Unorganised: “Race”, Poor Work and Trade Unions’, in The New Workplace and Trade Unionism, edited by Peter Ackers, Chris Smith and Paul Smith, London: Routledge, p. 245.

[10] Smith 1977, p. 193.

[11] Phizacklea and Miles 1987, p. 123.

[12] Lee 1987, p. 149.

[13] Wrench 1986, p. 13.

[14] GLC Anti-Racist Trade Union Working Group, Racism Within Trade Unions, 1984, London: GLC, p. 16.

[15] Wrench, Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, p. 22.

[16] Phizacklea and Miles 1987, p. 121.

[17] Wrench, Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, p. 24.

[18] ‘Black Sections: Radical Demand or… Distraction?’, Marxism Today, September 1985, p. 33.

[19] ‘Black Sections’, p. 34.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

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New book project: British Communism and the Politics of Race

A CPGB pamphlet from 1961

A CPGB pamphlet from 1961

I am very happy to announce that I have recently signed a contract with Brill’s Historical Materialism book series for a forthcoming book, tentatively titled The Communist Party of Great Britain and the Politics of Race, deliverable early next year. Here is a little about the proposed book:

This book examines how the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), as a large and an influential force within the British labour movement, responded to issues of ‘race’ and immigration from the late 1940s to the early 1980s – from the era of decolonisation and large scale migration to the early days of Thatcherism and the inner-city riots. Informed by its anti-colonial activism in the inter-war period, Communist Party was an attractive option for black workers who had migrated to Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s. In this period, the Communist Party was one of the first labour organisations that campaigned against racial discrimination and against racial incitement. However its anti-racism was subsumed by the wider struggle for socialism and industrial militancy, and the labour movement, including the CPGB, was often seen as unresponsive to the needs of Britain’s migrant communities and black workers. The CPGB can be seen as a microcosm of how the British labour movement related to the issue of ‘race’ and how the centrality of class was contested by other forms of politics, informed by ‘race’, such as black power, migrants’ rights and various forms of anti-racism.

The history of the Communist Party’s relationship with black workers was the history of a squandered opportunity, one that saw a steep decline from the 1940s and 1950s, when many black activists were attracted to the Party due to its historical anti-colonial stance, to the 1980s, when the Party was in disarray and the black communities were wary of a labour movement that had for so long minimized the problems of racism that black Britons faced. At the heart of the division between the CPGB and black workers was the belief that colonialism and racism were borne out of capitalism and that anti-racism/anti-colonialism were subordinate to the dynamics of class struggle. The CPGB faced major problems in convincing white workers, including the Party’s own members, to be actively involved in the fight against racism and colonialism – how and why this occurred is the focus of this book.

The theme of how the Communist Party lost its close relationship with black workers and the potential that was squandered frames the book’s investigation, addressing a gap in the cultural history of the British left. The book demonstrates an understanding of the extra-parliamentary forces at work in social policy in Britain and an insight into how government and its critics established social policy at legislative and practical level. The book takes up the argument that while the British left, particularly the Communist Party, has not been able to usher in a socialist revolution, its role in political activism, especially in the areas of anti-racism and anti-fascism, has been significant.

The book will attempt to show how the Communist Party went from one of the most influential political parties for Britain’s migrant workers to one of relative insignificance, overshadowed by other political organisations and by other forms of political activism. It will explore how the Communist Party, as part of the wider labour movement, was traditionally a vehicle for progressive politics and how the British labour movement has historically dealt with issues of ‘race’ and the problems facing Britain’s black communities. The book will argue that the Communist Party, as well as other sections of the British left, are integral to understanding the broader history of anti-racist politics in Britain and the transition from the more abstract anti-colonial politics of the early post-war era to the domestic anti-racism of the 1970s and 1980s.

I am very excited to be contributing to this excellent series of historical and political scholarship and am very grateful for the enthusiasm that the series editors have shown for the project. My recent trip to the UK garnered some brilliant new sources for the book (particularly the material from the Indian Workers Association archive in Birmingham and the Grunwick Strike Committee papers at the University of Warwick), which makes me doubly excited… Now on with the writing!

Before the ‘unity’ of Grunwick: 40 years since the Imperial Typewriters strike

I am currently in Birmingham and have spent the day in the archives of the Indian Workers Association, held in the new Library of Birmingham. Amongst the papers of the IWA is a lot of correspondence linked to the Imperial Typewriters strike on the summer of 1974, where South Asian workers went on an unofficial strike and had little support from the TGWU. The strike lasted from May to August 1974 and can be seen as a low point in the relations between black and white workers before the Grunwick strike broke out two years later. Below is an excerpt from a conference paper I presented at the 2008 Social History Society conference in Rotterdam that discusses the Imperial Typewriters strike. Some of it will be incorporated into a forthcoming monograph manuscript on the CPGB and the politics of ‘race’.

RaceToday

In May 1974, over 500 Asian workers went on strike at the Imperial Typewriters factory in Leicester; their grievances, like those at Mansfield Hosiery Mills, had come from the lack of opportunities for promotion for Asian workers and unpaid bonuses. The striking workers saw the local TGWU as complicit in their underpayment and as the strike got underway, they felt that ‘the struggles being waged by them were not merely unsupported but were actively opposed by their union’.[1] While both Imperial Typewriters and the local TGWU denied any racial discrimination, the strikers claimed that the ‘white workers don’t suffer from the same degree of discipline as blacks do’, although they were quoted in New Society as stating, ‘This discrimination is quite peculiar because it is so hard to nail. It is the racialism that you feel but cannot overtly see, that exists at Imperial’.[2] The representative of the TGWU for Imperial Typewriters was George Bromley, who objected to the unofficial nature of the strike and the demands being made. Bromley criticised the unofficial measures being taken by the Asian strikers and their apparent disregard for the ‘proper disputes procedure’, stating that the strikers ‘have got to learn to fit in with our ways’ and then claiming, ‘the way they have been acting… means they will close factories and people won’t employ them’.[3] The refusal of Bromley and the TGWU to fully support the industrial action at Imperial Typewriters led to the strikers relying on the black community, instead of the solidarity of their fellow unionists.

The support for the strike, as Robert Moore wrote, ‘reached right down into the community’, not amongst the white working class or within the union, but amongst ‘members of the local Asian society’.[4] Race Today reported the ‘move away from trade union directives’ had given the striking workers ‘a source of political strength’, with the strikers’ autonomy bringing the strike ‘a spirit, an approach, a willingness to try any tactic’.[5] This autonomy and reliance on the black community presented a challenge to the labour movement, which promoted the traditional path of union politicisation as the key to affecting change for Britain’s black population, although black workers were wary of what use the trade unions had in asserting their political rights.

The Communist Party and the International Socialists did report on these strikes in their newspapers, the Morning Star and Socialist Worker respectively, but were criticised for their alleged limited practical actions. In the Imperial Typewriters dispute, the fascist far right organisation, the National Front, tried to take advantage of the refusal of white workers’ to join the strike and held demonstrations against the black workers. A counter-demonstration was held in August 1974 against the presence of the National Front that included a large contingent from the International Socialists. Hasmukh Khetani, one of the leaders of Imperial Typewriter Strike Committee, criticised the International Socialists for ignoring the actual strike and using the demonstration as a recruitment exercise. Writing in Race Today, Khetani complained that ‘One got the impression that the white left organisations… were more concerned about a fascist threat… than actual support for Black workers struggle’.[6]

Some have seen these strikes as a clear demonstration between ‘the national union model’, where the leadership has made conciliatory gestures towards equal opportunity for ethnic minorities, and ‘the local model(s)’, which generally, ‘if not actively opposing the pursuit of equal opportunity… are apparently much less committed to opposing racist discrimination’.[7] The International Socialists viewed these wildcat strikes as the ‘beginning of workers’ control’ against union officialdom, who allowed racial discrimination to occur in the workplace.[8] The trade union leadership, Paul Foot wrote in an IS pamphlet, ‘have passed their motions, but done nothing whatever to combat racial discrimination… or the racist ideas which exist in the minds of many of their members’.[9] The solution to the ineffectiveness of the union officials against racial discrimination, for the International Socialists, was to turn black workers towards their rank-and-file movement. Rank-and-filism was an industrial strategy that opposed the ‘reformist’ actions of the trade union leadership, proposing that ‘strong defensive rank-and-file organisations’ be formed to challenge the unions’ ‘reformist bureaucracy’ who, left unchallenged, would lead workers down an ‘increasingly blind and occasionally bloody alley’.[10] In an IS pamphlet, aimed at readers of the short-lived Urdu and Punjabi IS newspapers Chingari, the party stated that the ‘only fight back’ against racism ‘comes from rank and file workers’ and with this rank-and-file organisation, ‘a real fight can be waged on the conservatism and outright racialism of many union leaderships’.[11] Despite the emphasis upon the rank-and-file as the core of a revolutionary organisation to overthrow capitalism, and therefore the vehicle for defeating racism, the IS/SWP never reached a the level of influence in the unions that the CPGB had and the strategy floundered,[12] with the SWP being a much larger influence in the anti-fascist movement with Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League.

The trade union leadership, as seen in a 1974 pamphlet produced by the TGWU, blamed white workers and the intervention of the National Front for the racism at Imperial Typewriters, with no mention of the complicity of the local union officials. For the TGWU, the lesson of the Imperial Typewriters strike was to establish a ‘consistent recruitment campaign to bring black workers into trade union membership’ and to ‘involve them in union ongoing activities’.[13] For the white union leadership, the strategy to combat racial discrimination was to adopt black workers into the existing structures of the trade unions, with ‘special representation for black members… at different levels’,[14] rather than unofficial militant actions by black workers. Despite this declaration to promote anti-racist actions within the trade unions, by 1986, only 4 per cent of black workers held elected posts within their unions, compared with 11 per cent of white workers.[15]

A number of academics have viewed the strike at Imperial Typewriters as part of a wider history of autonomous black industrial action that spans from Woolf’s Rubber Factory in Southall and Courtaulds Red Scar Mill in Preston, both in 1965, to the defeat of the Grunwick strike in late 1978, which highlights the controversial issue of ‘the relationship of trade unions to external community-based minority ethnic groups’.[16] As John Wrench and Satnam Virdee have noted, this issue ‘pricks a number of sensitive points in British trade union history’,[17] where the left and the labour movement have had address the fact that shopfloor racism fractured the supposed inherent unity between black and white workers.

—————————-

[1] Mala Dhondy, ‘The Strike at Imperial Typewriters’, Race Today, July 1974, p. 202

[2] Robert Taylor, ‘Asians and a Union’, New Society, 30 May, 1974, p. 511

[3] Cited in, M. Dhondy, ‘‘The Strike at Imperial Typewriters’, p. 201; ‘Two Worlds in Conflict’, Race Today, October 1974, p. 275

[4] Robert Moore, Racism and Black Resistance in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 1975, p. 81; p. 83

[5] M. Dhondy, ‘The Strike at Imperial Typewriters’, p. 205; ‘Imperial Typewriters Strike: The Continuing Story’, Race Today, August 1974, p. 223

[6] H. Khetani, ‘Leicester Anti-Fascist Demonstration’, Race Today, October, 1974, p. 287

[7] Richard Jenkins & Gary Parker, ‘Organisational Politics and the Recruitment of Black Workers’, in Gloria Lee and Ray Loveridge, The Manufacture of Disadvantage: Stigma and Social Closure, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1987, p. 67

[8] International Socialists, The Black Worker in Britain, IS/Chingari pamphlet, London, n.d., p. 24

[9] Paul Foot, Workers Against Racism, IS pamphlet, London, n.d., p. 19

[10] Steve Jeffreys ‘The Challenge of the Rank and File’, International Socialism 1/76 (March 1975) p. 7

[11] IS, The Black Worker in Britain, p. 28; p. 25

[12] John McIlroy ‘Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned’: The Trotskyists and the Trade Unions’, in John McIlroy, Nina Fishman & Alan Campbell British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics vol 2: The High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79, Ashgate, Aldershot, 1999, p. 285

[13] TGWU, Racialism, Fascism and the Trade Unions,TGWU pamphlet, 1974, p. 6

[14] TGWU, Racialism, Fascism and the Trade Unions, p. 7

[15] Satnam Virdee & Keith Grint, ‘Black Self-Organisation in Trade Unions’, Sociological Review, 42/2, May 1994, p. 206

[16] John Wrench & Satnam Virdee, ‘Organising the Unorganised: “Race”, Poor Work and Trade Unions’, in Peter Ackers, Chris Smith & Paul Smith (eds), The New Workplace and Trade Unionism, Routledge, London, 1996, p. 257

[17] J. Wrench & S. Virdee, ‘Organising the Unorganised’, p. 257