To mark UN Anti-Racism Day on Saturday 21st March we turn the spotlight on the material relating to race and racial discrimination in the TUC Library:
The trade union and labour movement has a proud record in recent decades of campaigning against racial discrimination in the workplace and wider society. Like all institutions of public life, however, it also has a more complicated history with respect to identifying and challenging racism within its own structures in the post-war period. For an excellent introduction to the history of black workers and trade unions you can read an article written by Wilf Sullivan, Race Equality Officer for the TUC, produced for our Britain at Work website.
There is a long history of ethnic minority immigration to Britain, as can be seen in the satirical image above from the 1830s, showing a “disorderly” union meeting with three black workers present. Immigration continued into the early 20th century and inter-war period, particularly in the merchant navy and dock labouring industries.
However, it was the immediate post-WWII period that saw the most significant increase in immigration into the UK, as the “Windrush generation” were actively encouraged by the British state to ease post-war labour shortages. Many of the immigrants came from the Commonwealth nations – the West Indies, India, Pakistan, etc. – and worked in sectors such as transport, catering, hospitality, and the newly established National Health Service.
Life was not easy for new immigrants and they often faced various forms of discrimination. In the workplace a colour bar existed in particular industries, a policy that in some cases was actively supported by the industry’s union.
In 1958 racially motivated disturbances broke out in Notting Hill, London, and in other areas such as Nottingham. The TUC produced a statement condemning the violence (see below) and the next year the Notting Hill Carnival was founded in order to foster better community relations.
TUC statement on racial disturbances, 1958
In the 1960s legislation was enacted to more tightly regulate immigration, for example the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962. Other legislation did secure significant reforms, most notably the 1965 Race Relations Act, which outlawed racial discrimination in public places. Later legislation would extend the law to cover employment opportunities and the provision of housing and other services.
It was not until the 1970s that the trade union movement took meaningful steps to recognise and challenge racism within its own structures. This was prompted by a number of strikes involving ethnic minority workers during the 1970s. In 1972 a dispute at Mansfield Hosiery involving mainly Asian workers was not supported by the workers’ union. In 1974 a dispute at the Imperial Typewriters company in Leicester prompted the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) to conduct a post-strike enquiry into the actions of some of its local officials. This coincided with the TGWU publishing one of the first pamphlets to seriously consider the issue of racial discrimination within unions and to propose reforms for making them more internally representative and to better serve the interests of their ethnic minority members. This pamphlet, “Racialism, Fascism and the Trade Unions” (below) can be found in the TUC Library. It discusses racism within society, the rise of fascist groups such as the National Front and what unions should be doing to oppose such activities.
Pamphlet produced by the TGWU (now Unite), 1974
A significant event also occurred at the 1973 TUC Annual Congress, where the TUC decided to end its “colour blind” policy and instead directly tackle the racial discrimination issue by starting to produce publications and educational materials on the issue of race and for ethnic minority members.
An even more significant event was the Grunwick strike of 1976-78, which involved mainly Asian women working at the Grunwick Film Processing Labs in Hendon, north London. It was one of the first strikes, and certainly the most high profile, in which the trade union movement displayed significant solidarity and support for ethnic minority strikers. The library contains a large collection of material relating to the dispute.
Grunwick strikers at the 1977 TUC Congress.
In 1976 the TUC and the Labour Party also organised a joint Campaign Against Racialism, involving a march from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square.
Into the 1980s the TUC and trade union movement continued to campaign against racial discrimination at work, against practices such as ‘ethnic monitoring‘ in provision of public services and benefits, and in support of the growing equality and diversity agenda.
TUC “Workbook on Racism”, produced for union education courses, 1983
The TUC Library continues to collect a wide variety of publications and campaigning materials from the TUC, unions, Labour Party and other organisations, on the subject of race equality and anti-discrimination. To find out more about what we hold get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org, 020 7133 3716 or visit our website.