Blog: UNISON will redouble the fight against racism

Earlier this year a Unison rep and nurse was on shift at Southmead Hospital in Bristol and discovered shocking racist graffiti, using words she hadn’t heard since the 1970s.

Regional secretary Joanne Kaye writes from South West TUC’s annual conference at Croyde Bay.

The nurse was so shaken and distressed by this she had to leave work. What made it worse was that this was a staff only area so the author of this racist filth must have been a colleague.

And it wasn’t the first time this had happened. In 2018 lifts in the hospital were daubed with Ku Klux Klan graffiti, leaving staff, patients and visitors feeling threatened in a place they should have felt safe.

North Bristol is one of the city’s largest workplaces, with a diverse workforce, many of whom are the daughters and sons of the Windrush generation. They work in our beloved NHS, caring for the sick and vulnerable, yet are the targets of hate and threats in their own workplace. In February 2019, a report into Bristol City Council showed black workers in the council believed there was a deep rooted institutional racism there, with black employees being told “the room doesn’t need cleaning” when they entered, as one shocking example. Despite Marvin Rees, Britain’s only Afro-Caribbean mayor, being determined to change the culture, the report showed how deeply ingrained racism blights the daily lives of black council staff.

Bristol is a diverse, exciting city, yet racism remains a daily reality for its citizens, exacerbated by the 2016 referendum result, and the sharp rise in hate crime has not abated. Life outside Bristol across the South West is no better for black workers or indeed the many migrant workers who keep the regional economy going. In rural areas, businesses depend on Eastern European workers to run the tourist industry or care sector, yet these workers are attacked for speaking their own language or asked why they’re ”still here.”

In North Devon, where South West TUC held their annual conference at the weekend, the council has stated clearly that the only route to economic survival is to increase the working age population, the imminent end of free movement means that businesses will close and everyone will be poorer. We are clearly very far from being “full,” as the racists repeatedly claim.

There is so much to be done, and as the turmoil of Brexit sucks the energy out of our political world, we must be collaborators in the fight against racism. This week we should applaud the courage of people like Robbie Mullen, whose bravery stopped a murderous fascist from carrying out his threats.

But perhaps what is most shocking is how few black or migrant workers come to their trade union for help. We know that hate crime and racism is on the rise, but too often the union is not seen as the place to turn.

Some of the reasons behind this is the normalisation of racism — “it’s just life,” “you just ignore it” or “don’t cause trouble” — are frequently expressed views as to why people don’t report it. But a more troubling reason is that black workers see unions as dominated by white people, who don’t understand or won’t believe them. In the conference hall in Croyde this weekend, full of the trade unions that are determined to fight racism, there were too few black faces, and that is something we need to change.

However strongly we feel about racism, as white trade unionists our first job is to get more black people in the room and until we do this, we run the risk of being at best white saviours, but at worst, part of the problem rather than the solution. In Unison we are trying our best to develop and support black workers’ self-organisation and have seen amazing successes in Dorset where a vibrant Black Members Group has sprung up in the unlikeliest of places and won a Unison Equalities award earlier this year.

This group often tell us they have much to learn, but in reality they have much to teach us as a movement. We need their enthusiasm and determination, but we also need to welcome them as comrades and make space for them as new branch officials and regional leaders. Racism may be on the march, but so are we and if we open our movement to a wider, more diverse leadership we will be the stronger for it.