Fighting For Anti-Racist Workplaces – SUTR & TUC Trade Union Conference report

On 5th February I attended the Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) & TUC Trade Union Conference: Fighting For Anti-Racist Workplaces, as a delegate for the NEC. Our delegation also included Bridget Corcoran, Sarah Ensor and Paul Williams, however the conference was open to all activists. The conference was building for the UN Anti-Racism Day actions which will take place in London and Glasgow on 19th March, and in Cardiff on 20th March.

The opening plenary was chaired by TUC equality officer Wilf Sullivan and was addressed by general secretaries, NEC members and Black Committee members from various unions. Scottish TUC general secretary Roz Foyer and Wales TUC general secretary Shavanah Taj also spoke during the plenary.

We then moved to the workshops. There were 6 workshops running at the same time, all with really important themes, including Opposing The Policing Bill – Fighting For Justice which NEC Vice President Zita Holbourne spoke at.

I attended the workshop entitled Opposing The Nationality And Borders Bill – Resisting The Hostile Environment.

Wilf Sullivan opened the workshop by stating that the bill has not come out of the blue, as there has been decades of legislation trying to stop people who have a right to be here from coming in.

The first speaker at this session was DWP GEC member and PCS Black Members Committee chair Mohammed Shafiq. Mohammed stated that PCS are proud to continue to work with SUTR. PCS have joined with Care4Calais to challenge the lawfulness of the Home Office’s pushback policy. Mohammed talked about the Nationality and Borders Bill, stating that it is a cheap reaction from a weak government who struggle to control the narrative. While we all agree that legal process has to be followed if a crime is committed, under the 2-tier system created by the government it is more likely that someone with an ethnic background would be stripped of their British citizenship. Boris Johnson who was born in the USA is unlikely to be stripped of his if found to have been acting unlawfully. Mohammed also cited Ghislaine Maxwell as an example of someone who is unlikely to be stripped of British citizenship despite being involved in a high profile child abuse case.

We also heard from a primary teacher from Glasgow, Clare Harker, who had been involved in the action taken at Kenmure St in Pollokshields last year, protesting the dawn raids and preventing 2 men from being deported. Clare talked about how there are many Muslim children who attend the catholic school where she teaches. They read and see things in the media and ask why people hate Muslims, why people like Trump are being voted into power, and will they be made to leave following Brexit. The school work to empower the pupils to know their rights.

Suzanne Jeffery from Campaign Against Climate Change talked about how natural disasters impact more on areas like Latin America, Africa, and South East Asia. COP26 has failed to secure the action needed to keep the temperature increase below 1.5%, which will become a death sentence for these areas and force migration for millions, however the nationality and borders bill will impact on these people also. We need to fight to establish a non-hostile environment for those needing to flee these conditions. The government continues to bail out the energy companies, ignoring the cost of living crisis and the needs of those who are suffering most.

SUTR co-convener Weyman Bennett backed this up with the example of Syrian refugees leaving due to droughts. SUTR will continue working with the TUC, and has worked with trade unions campaigning against the pushbacks on the boats. Weyman predicts that there will be more action like that at Pollokshields, as there will be increased camp situations in cities set to openly divide people. SUTR are building blocs on the demos taking place in March however will need to build around that in communities.

Mohammad N Asif from Afghan Human Rights Foundation talked about how asylum seekers are being sent letters from Priti Patel telling them that France and other countries are being asked to take them back, they won’t get status here. He said if we don’t want refugees we need to stop bombing countries or selling weapons to countries. If we don’t want refugees we need to stop creating a cause for it. He stated that Britain wouldn’t bomb white countries. He challenged the myth that immigrants have collapsed the economy. The economy was collapsed by Tories, their rich friends and bankers. Under Labour government asylum seekers were given vouchers to live on, and even now 20 years later are only getting £2 a week more to live on.

Comments from participants praised the action that took place in Glasgow, and agreed it wouldn’t be the last time. There was talk about the poor conditions the asylum seekers experienced in the hotels they were placed in during the pandemic. There was also some disappointment at the low numbers of activists at recent demos, and that it is difficult to motivate members to get involved. We have a lot of victories to be proud of, but need to work on our weaknesses. Trade unions need to hold racist workplaces to account otherwise they are guilty of racism also and are failing their black members.

TUC Head of equalities Kudsia Batool chaired the closing plenary, which was addressed by TU general secretaries and officers, and UK and international activists.

The first speaker, Unison national equalities officer Gloria Mills began by thanking PCS and SUTR for the sustainable work done over the years to fight back against racism, since the first meeting with former deputy general secretary Hugh Lanning.

There was a video from Clare Mosley from Care4Calais, who was unable to attend as she was doing vital work in Calais. She talked about work they have done with lawyers to prove that boat drivers who had been imprisoned had committed no crimes, however this bill will make channel crossing illegal. This will not stop people coming, it will just make it more dangerous. She talked about how proud she is that Care4Calais are working with PCS on the legal action.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka talked about the amazing work our black members have done, including Mohammed Shafiq with the Black Members Committee, and Zita Holbourne and Hector Wesley who have taken supplies to Calais. He said that conferences like this are vital, as too often people believe that racism is not a UK problem. Conferences like this show why it is important that we continue to campaign. He talked about the Cardiff 3, and how black people are more likely to be stopped and searched by police, or die in police custody. Mark stated he is proud that PCS has joined with Care4Calais, and while we didn’t get the injunction we requested, we have a date for court.

Mark talked about the roles that trade unions have to play, from tackling racism to combatting areas where members are under-represented. There are areas we need to tackle, movement of work from areas where there are higher numbers of black people, and outsourced work that impacts on black members. Mobilisation is important in the workplace, and on the streets. The mobilisation in Glasgow last year was one of the most inspiring actions. SUTR mobilised in Telford last week against Tommy Robinson and his supporters, however we need to build to ensure we outnumber them.

Throughout the plenaries and the workshops, the speakers talked about institutional racism, which is not made easier by a racist government or prime minister, low paid jobs more likely to be done by black members, both the ethnic and the gender pay gaps, and the effects of covid on black and brown people.

Speakers also highlighted the work we have done and our victories, however there is more that we can and must do. We need to work with our black members, speak to them about becoming active, and listen to them. We need to work to make sure our unions are more representative and black members should be taking the lead on this.

All in all it was a very inspiring conference, with some fantastic speakers from the trade union and anti-racist movement. The plenaries can be watched on Facebook – Opening Plenary and Closing Plenary or YouTube and the workshop videos will be available later in the week on SUTR’s social media.

Liz McGachey