HeartUnions Week: Celebrating Black British Trade Unionism

As the trade union movement renews the fight against racial injustice, we must continue to learn from the past.

17 Feb 2023| News

From Sanmeet Kaur at the TUC:

For #HeartUnions week 2023 we want to spotlight Black1 British trade union history. We know that our union movement is strongest when it stands for all members – Black and White – and leads the charge for equality. As the trade union movement renews the fight against racial injustice, we must continue to learn from the past.

When it comes to recognising and championing the contribution of Black workers in the trade union and labour movement, this is often only seen in the context of post-war immigration. However, the inter-war period was a key period for the development of Black self-organisation in the UK trade union movement.

During 1919, there were disturbances in port areas of Britain with large concentrations of Black people. In the summer of that year, there were disturbances in South Wales which saw local white men attacking Black men in the dock areas, forcing the local Black community to barricade themselves in their homes for several days.

In 1936 Britain saw the formation of the Coloured Seaman’s Union which brought together Africans, West Indians, Arabs and Malays to fight against the colour bar operating on the Cardiff Docks. Shortly after in 1938, the Indian Workers Association (IWA) was formed in Coventry and many local branches began emerging in areas such as Leicester and London.

In the period after the war, the UK heavily relied on migrant workers to rebuild the economy, and these included many people from ex-colonies such as the West Indies, India, and Pakistan. Almost immediately upon arrival, these workers were subject to dire employment conditions and were overrepresented in low-paid, insecure jobs. For many of the new arrivals, joining the trade union movement in Britain followed a long-standing tradition of collective organising under British colonial rule. This link between the anti-colonial struggle and trade unionism was strengthened in 1945 by the involvement of many trade union delegates at the Fifth Pan African Congress held in Manchester.

In the years that followed, Black self-organisation was at the heart of opposing immigration control. In the 1960s the IWA’s main campaign was opposing the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Bill which sought to restrict the entry of the Black migrants from Commonwealth countries. In 1963, youth worker Paul Stephenson and the West Indian Development Council successfully led a four-mouth boycott of the buses in Bristol. This marked a critical moment of mobilisation against the colour bar in employment.

HeartUnions week gives us a chance to tell us a story about why unions are vital for everyone, and nobody better exemplifies that better than “lioness” Jayaben Desai. With a rallying cry of “We are those Lions, Mr Manager”, a group of Asian and West Indian women walked out of Grunwick, a photography processing factory in 1976, because of bad working conditions and attempts by management to cut their pay. They joined the local Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staffs (APEX) branch and demanded union recognition. The strike went on for a year and, although ultimately unsuccessful, it was historically significant as the first dispute of Black workers that attracted mass support from the trade union movement.

Our history shows us that the fight against injustice is not an easy one. But it is necessary. In the words of the TUC’s Anti-Racism Taskforce Chair, Patrick Roach “We know that divided we fall, but united we stand strong in our shared ambition to change the world of work for good, and in the certain knowledge that when Black workers rise, we all rise.”

More information on BME workers past and present can be found here and you can read about the TUC’s Anti-Racism Taskforce here.