By Jim Denham
Even in the midst of bitter industrial struggles, it is not uncommon to hear white trade unionists expressing racist views.
In the 1970s the National Front could boast a number of shop stewards among its membership — including in the British Leyland Longbridge plant, then the largest and arguably best organised factory in Britain.
Nevertheless, trade unions are vitally important in the fight against racism and fascism. Trade union campaigns and industrial struggles that emphasise the common class interests of all workers can at least begin to break down prejudice.
The great miners' strike of 1984-5 was a classic example of this. The mining industry and the communities attached to it are almost exclusively white. Some NUM activists, from South Wales in particular, had by their own admission never met a black person socially. Inevitably, many NUM militants had backward views about race, and some were downright racist.
The strike changed attitudes fundamentally. Flying pickets found themselves in towns and cities with large black populations, and discovered that black people were often their strongest supporters. It became widely known among NUM activists that black and Asian inner-city areas were the best places to hold street collections; that black shop stewards were often the best contacts in industry; and that Sikh, Hindu and Muslim temples and mosques were far more likely to offer support than white churches.
In mid-1985, some months after the end of the strike, I ran into a group of NUM members from South Wales, all dressed in their best suits, at the entrance of a Sikh temple in Birmingham. They had come to pay their last respects to the temple's head priest, who had given them support during the strike, and whose funeral was that day. Some of those same miners had habitually used terms like “wog" and “Paki" 12 months before.
Something very similar happened in the firefighters' union, the FBU, as a result of their first national strike in 1977-8. Although the union was led by left-wingers in and around the Communist Party, its rank and file was traditionally quite reactionary. Almost exclusively male and white, the fire service was an example of “craft unionism" at its worst. Many firemen (and they were all men) came into the service from the police, the army and the navy. Jobs were not advertised and family dynasties were commonplace.
In this environment, “soft" racism was the norm, and organised fascists were able to operate fairly openly. According to one FBU activist, “The strike changed all that: our members were brought into contact with the wider labour movement for the first time and we found that black people were often our strongest supporters.
“Black stewards at places like Lucas were to the forefront in organising collections and meetings for us. Sikh temples gave us support while the ‘white' churches turned us away.
“It didn't do away with racism overnight, but it made people think and forced the racists to at least keep their heads down.
“The process was helped by the fact that after the strike the service opened up considerably, and many more black people started joining. One of the obvious reasons why racists and NF supporters had been able to flourish was that there were virtually no black people in the service. If it hadn't been for the strike, the fire service would have continued as before."
Bill Morris, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, is the most prominent black trade union official in Britain. His decisive victory in the 1991 election for General Secretary represented a big step forward for anti-racism and for common decency in British society.
Morris had fought his way through the hierarchy of the TGWU, starting off as a shop steward in the West Midlands motor industry in the 1950s and 60s. It can't have been easy for him, representing mainly white workers in an industry where racism was rife. By all accounts, his rise in the union was due to the respect he won, even from racists, as a competent, dedicated and fairly militant steward.
When Morris became a leading union official, for years he was the victim of a vicious whispering campaign from the union's shadowy but influential right wing. The gist of it was: “Bill's a nice enough bloke, but he's not really very bright, is he? He's not up to the job. He's only got where he is because he's black."
During the contest for General Secretary in 1991, the anti-Morris campaign got nastier. An unofficial leaflet circulated in Midlands engineering factories, carrying the slogan “Don't let the coon call the tune". Morris's opponent, George Wright, went on record condemning this filth; but, given the extensive contact he and his supporters had with the national press, he might have been a little more up-front about disowning his racist supporters.
Morris emphasised workers' unity across ethnic divisions. A defeat for him would have been conclusive proof that racism remained potent in the trade union movement. He won decisively.
The fact that he has not been a militant or effective leader since then (and has been particularly weak in recent years) does not make Morris's victory any less important. Moreover he has been one of very few trade union leaders to criticise racist Labour Party policies, using his position to oppose the Blair Government's persecution of asylum-seekers.
The election of one General Secretary does not eradicate racism in the trade union movement, any more than the election of a number of black mayors and judges has mended the position of most US black people. But it does show that a programme of basic workers' unity has a resonance in the British working class.
Racism is not invincible. The last few years have seen inspiring examples of working-class action against racism, which, though small in scale, show the huge possibilities of class unity against prejudice.
In the run-up to the 1997 General Election, postal workers in a number of offices refused to deliver British National Party leaflets. Since then, postal workers have regularly refused to deliver fascist election material, and in 2000 the national conference of the Communication Workers' Union voted to support them, forcing Royal Mail to retreat from its attempts at disciplinary action against militant postal workers.
In 1999, a thousand TGWU members at Ford's Dagenham plant walked out in protest at the victimisation of Indian worker Sukhjit Parma by a racist foreman. The management at Dagenham had long refused to admit that it had any problem with racist harassment or discrimination; the walk-out forced it to the negotiating table in a matter of hours.
Union-backed black workers at Dagenham have won court cases against racist discrimination they have suffered while working at the car plant.
Working-class unity can prevail. Back in 1968, TGWU dockers in London marched in support of Enoch Powell's “Rivers of Blood" speech. In the 1990s, members of the same union elected the first black General Secretary in Britain and downed their tools in protest at management racism. There is hope!