Race and trade unions

TUC - Labour Party Campaign Against Racialism, 1976


By Wilf Sullivan, TUC Race Equality Officer


The contribution of black workers in the trade union and labour movement is largely undocumented and mainly seen in the context of post-war immigration. However the years between the two World Wars were particularly important for the development of black self-organisation in the UK trade union movement.

The inter-war period saw major race disturbances in both mainland Britain and in its colonial outposts. During 1919, there were disturbances in port areas of Britain with large concentrations of black people. Perhaps the most serious of the disturbances in the UK occurred in Cardiff during the summer of 1919. Local white men attacked black men in the docks area forcing the local black community to barricade themselves in their homes for several days.

In 1936, black workers in Cardiff formed the Coloured Seamen's Union, bringing together Africans, West Indians, Arabs and Malays to fight against the operation of the colour bar on the Cardiff Docks. This move to develop their own black self-organised structures within the context of the labour market was as a direct consequence of the failure of trade unions to effectively take up the specific issues facing black workers at that particular workplace. The period also witnessed the formation of the first independent black self-organised trade union in the UK. The Coloured Film Artistes' Association (CFAA) was established at Elstree studios as a means of attempting to improve the terms and conditions of work for black actors and extras at the site.

Asian workers were also active in creating black self-organisation with strong links with the trade union movement. They formed the Indian Workers Association (IWA) in Coventry in 1938. Many other local branches were formed in subsequent years in areas with a high concentration of Indian workers, eg Leicester and Southall. Many IWA members had been activists in India and brought with them a strong tradition of militant struggle. The IWA always encouraged trade union activity, but initially its main focus was concentrated on the issue of Indian independence from British rule - this was achieved in 1947. As a result of this and the fact that there was a big increase in the number of Indians coming to live and work in Britain after World War Two, the IWA focused more on the trade union and anti-racist struggle in Britain. By the 1950s, the various Associations had combined to become the Indian Workers Association (Great Britain). After unifying these local groups, the IWA (GB) quickly became one of the most important Punjabi associations in Britain, with strong connections to the trade union movement and closely involved with both anti-racist and immigration legislation.


As in other European countries the United Kingdom actively recruited migrant workers to rebuild the economy after the war. Initially, Britain recruited Polish ex-servicemen and European Voluntary Workers (EVW) from refugee camps and from Italy. The Trades Union Congress (TUC), and especially the miners' union, however, insisted on strict conditions, arguing that EVWs could be employed only if there was no British labour available.

However, labour migration came from ex-colonies as well: West Indies, India, and Pakistan - the Commonwealth. According to the British Nationality Act of 1948 all subjects of the crown had the right to enter Britain. These workers, through their Commonwealth citizenship, had the right to live and work in Britain without restrictions. Indeed, they had the same political and legal rights as the British citizens (e.g. voting rights in local and national elections). This colonial status was thus very different from the 'guest workers' in other European countries. But although they had the same rights in theory, the Commonwealth workers took subordinate positions in employment compared to white British workers and were over-represented in low-paid, insecure jobs.

Trade unionism was a natural means of organisation for these migrants, developed from their direct experience and tradition of organising in trade unions (sometimes illegally) under British colonial rule. Trade unions in the English speaking colonies emerged after the First World War, as a form of organised resistance to some of the economic and social excesses of British colonial rule. The link between the anti-colonial struggle and trade unionism was strengthened by the involvement of many trade union delegates at the 5th Pan African Congress held in Manchester in 1945. The Congress was held a month after the World Federation of Trade Unions conference in Paris and this enabled black trade unionists from the colonies and from the UK to participate.

This experience of trade union organising in Africa, the Caribbean and India accompanied post war immigration to the UK. A tradition of collective organising was part of the black worker experience, so joining a trade union was a natural step to take when entering the UK labour force.

However, despite black workers joining trade unions in large numbers, they were not welcomed by the UK trade union movement or the TUC. While the immigrant workers did not constitute a threat to the jobs of British workers because of acute labour shortages following the war, the TUC argued during the 1950's and 1960's that black workers did not integrate with white workers. This helped to stereotype black migrant workers as "problem" and "other". Even though during the 1969 TUC Congress, rank-and-file trade union members challenged the immigration controls and supported government's plans in calling for positive action to combat discrimination, the TUC General Council prevented the motion receiving majority support, thereby opposing government plans for anti-discrimination legislation.

During this period, the UK trade unions' position can be categorized as 'racist exclusive'. Some trade unions' preference was to, first, keep migrant workers out of the labour market, second, (since that wasn't possible) keep them out of the union, and third, since many became union members, exclude them from the entitled union benefits. In addition, during the 1950s there were a number of race riots, or attacks on immigrants by white youths and the Oswald Mosley's Union Movement. This culminated in the riots in Nottingham and London's Notting Hill in 1958 where black people were attacked in the streets and in their houses.

The consequences of this social unrest were that from the early 1960's there was a shift towards immigration controls to restrict the migration of Commonwealth citizens through legislation. Control legislation was introduced by the Conservative government and rested on the assumption that all those who could potentially move to Britain would actually do so (800 million people). The Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 distinguished between the citizens of the UK and the citizens of the independent Commonwealth countries. More restrictive legislation was enacted with the Immigration Act 1971 and under Margaret Thatcher with the British Nationality Act 1981. The latter divided citizens of the UK and the colonies into three categories: Full British citizenship, British Dependent Territories Citizenship (people from Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, and Hong Kong) and, finally, British Overseas Citizenship (the latter with almost no rights attached to it).

The TUC failed to oppose the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 and the Immigration Act 1971, which restricted further the immigration from Commonwealth countries. UK policy rested on a notion of multiculturalism defined by the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, in 1966 "not as a flattening process of assimilation but equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance".

It was left to black organisations to lead the campaign against the increasing imposition of immigration controls. One of the IWA's main campaigns during the 1960's was against immigration legislation, in particular the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Bill which sought to restrict the entry into Britain of black migrants from Commonwealth countries. The IWA, in conjunction with other bodies such as the West Indian Standing Conference, and the Standing Conference of Pakistan, fought hard against this legislation, putting together a pamphlet entitled 'Victims Speak' and posting it to each Member of Parliament. Umbrella organisations that combined black organisations with sympathetic white groups to campaign against discriminatory legislation were formed. The most prominent of these were the Co-ordinating Committee Against Racial Discrimination which was based in Birmingham and the Conference of Afro-Asian-Caribbean Organisations in London. However, the campaigns did not stop the Bill becoming law, and marked the beginning of a new era in the politicisation of race as an issue in British politics.

Whilst campaigns against increasingly draconian immigration met with little success black communities continued to organise against discrimination in the labour market. An important mobilisation against the colour bar in employment took place in Bristol in 1963 when black communities boycotted bus services. The boycott was organised because of the refusal of the Bristol Omnibus Company, supported by the local Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) branch, to employ Black or Asian bus crews in Bristol. Led by youth worker Paul Stephenson and the West Indian Development Council, the boycott lasted for four months until the company backed down and overturned the colour bar. The boycott drew national attention to racial discrimination in Britain and the campaign was supported by national politicians, including Harold Wilson, Tony Benn and Fenner Brockway. The local Trades Council also supported the campaign despite the hostility of the TGWU.
In May 1965, the first important strike by black workers took place at Courtauld's Red Scar Mill, Preston over the management's decision to force Asian workers (who were concentrated with a few West Indians in one area of the labour process) to work more machines for less pay. The strike was not successful but exposed the active collaboration of white workers, local union officials and management against the black workers. Despite the lack of official union support the strike was sustained by community support which set a pattern for a number of strikes in the 1970's. This pattern became more evident in a strike at the Woolf Rubber Company later in the same year which was supported by the Asian community and in particular the IWA and the Racial Adjustment Action Society whose formation had been inspired by the visit of Malcolm X to London in February 1965.
These campaigns were influential in the passing of the Race Relations Act 1965 which made "racial discrimination unlawful in public places" and the Race Relations Act 1968, which extended the provisions to employment and housing. However, the introduction of this legislation was not without controversy as it occurred within the context of a fierce debate about immigration following the passing of the Labour Government's Commonwealth Immigrants Act in March 1968, which barred free entry to Britain of Asians fleeing repression in Kenya.

The orchestration of public opinion against immigration and black communities was led by Enoch Powell who was campaigning for more stringent immigration legislation and against the proposed Race Relations Act in 1968. His campaign culminated in his '"rivers of blood" speech in April 1968. When Edward Heath sacked Powell and a Labour MP referred the speech to the Director of Public Prosecutions, white workers responded by downing tools and staging demonstrations in support of Powell. On 23 April, 1,000 London dockers went on strike in protest at Powell's sacking and marched from the East End to the Palace of Westminster carrying placards saying "Don't knock Enoch" and "Back Britain, not Black Britain". On 24 April, 600 Dockers at St Katharine's Docks voted to strike and numerous smaller factories across the country followed. 600 Smithfield meat porters struck and marched to Westminster and handed Powell a 92-page petition supporting him. By 27 April, 4,500 dockers were on strike. On 2 May, the Attorney-General, announced he would not prosecute Powell after consulting the Director of Public Prosecutions. These events legitimised hostility, and even violence, towards black workers and the community.


The first real shift within the TUC away from what was seen as the 'problem of racism' did not occur until the 1973 TUC Congress. This shift by the TUC was against a background of a growing number of strikes against trade union racism by black workers and the rise of the far right National Front. This coming together of events coerced the TUC into reconsidering their colour blind approach, and to produce educational material on the subject of migration. Although, the policy shift by the TUC was not translated into real and meaningful change in the workplace it was, nevertheless, an important and significant policy shift for the trade union movement.

Despite the lack of action by unions on racial discrimination in the workplace, black workers continued to organise. Where they were not unionised, black workers first used the unions to fight management for unionisation, and then took on racism in the unions themselves. This led to a series of key industrial conflicts with a discourse around 'race discrimination', rather than immigration.

In May 1972, Pakistani workers in Crepe Sizes Ltd, Nottingham went on strike over working conditions, redundancies and pay. Initially there was no support from the TGWU, but a solidarity committee composed of wives, family, other Asian workers, community activists and the Black Peoples Freedom Movement forced the union to act. The dispute resulted in management agreeing to union recognition and the reinstatement of the workers that had been made redundant.

In October 1972, a strike broke out at Mansfield Hosiery Mills in Loughborough where 500 Asian workers went on strike for higher wages and against the denial of promotion. The National Union of Hosiery and Knitwear Workers supported the wage demand but not the demand for promotion opportunities. Once again, a solidarity committee was formed from the community which forced the union into backing the strikers by organising an occupation of union offices. When strikes took place in Courtauld's Mill in Mansfield and E.E Jaffee in Nottingham in 1973, the Mansfield Hosiery Strike Committee was there to advise and support them.

Despite some successes, trade union racism was an increasing problem which was demonstrated in 1994 when Asian workers (many of them women) went on strike at Imperial Typewriters in Leicester over racial discrimination and exploitation. The TGWU refused to back the strike and management colluded with the white workers and local union officials by enlisting the support of the National Front, who attacked strikers at the factory gates. Black strike committees from other disputes in the Midlands, community organisations, the IWA, Birmingham Sikh Temple, and the Birmingham Anti-Racist Committee raised money and supported the strikers who eventually won the dispute.

This pattern was finally changed in 1976 by a strike at Grunwick, a photo processing plant in North West London. A group of Asian and West Indian women led by Jayaben Desai walked out 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. A whole range of workers including car workers, miners, engineers and electricians supported mass pickets at the plant and Post Office workers took secondary action by not delivering mail to the firm.

The strike heralded a new confidence among black workers, fighting for recognition within trade unions through the establishment of black self-organised structures. These self-organising structures were considered a strategy to increase participation and facilitate the participation of black members (and other marginalised groups) into the mainstream union structures more easily.


Shaken by the industrial disputes of the early 1970's, the General Council of the TUC decided that a Race Relations Advisory Committee should be set up in December 1975. The aim was to establish a body of trade union representatives with practical experience of dealing with race relations problems, particularly in employment, who could advise the Equal Rights Committee on such matters.

In 1976, the TUC launched a new charter for black workers. The charter urges union executives to declare publically to members their commitment to improve the position of black workers and involve them in the activities of the union at every level. It called on unions to ensure that the nomination and selection of black workers should be specifically encouraged.

As the number of black workers in professional sections of the public services began to grow through the 1970's and into the 1980's, so did the pressure on trade unions to face up to the racism that was being experienced by those workers. As trade unions came under attack at the beginning of the Thatcher era in 1979 and membership levels began to sharply decline it was increasingly clear that it was these black workers who formed one of the loyalest sections of their members. From the black worker point of view, it also became increasingly clear that there was little appetite amongst many in the white trade union leadership to deal with the racism that blacks faced from their white workmates - often fellow trade union members - or from the employer. This led black workers to fall back on what they knew from their history of resisting slavery and colonialism- that collectively organising as black workers can bring results.

Informal meetings of black workers - particularly in the public services - started to take place. The aim was to provide solidarity to share information on their plight and to begin to map out a strategy for exerting more influence within their trade unions. Inevitably this strategy always appeared to have two key planks: firstly, that the union should recognise the right of black workers to self-organise within its formal structures and secondly, that resources should be made available to support this process.

Some unions, after having initially refused to do so, did eventually agree to varying forms of black self-organisation in the early 1980's. The National and Local Government Officers Association (now part of UNISON), the National Union of Journalists and the National Association of Probation Officers all agreed to forms of black self-organisation.

The same period also saw the development of un-recognised or informal black self-organised groups (often, at least initially, un-recognised by union leaderships) within other unions such as the National Union of Public Employees, the Confederation of Health Service Employees (both now part of UNISON), the Society of Civil and Public Servants (now part of the Public and Commercial Services Union) and the Transport and General Workers' Union. The norm was for unions to establish advisory structures to their executive committees rather than providing the space for black self-organisation within their structures.

Much of this growth arose from the activities of the Black Trade Union Solidarity Movement and the later Labour Party Black Section inspired Black Trade Union Forum. It was essentially the same people involved in these three bodies. They each contributed in their specific spheres of work to providing a cross union approach to the development of black self-organisation. This allowed black activists to exchange intelligence on the strategies that were being pursued by trade union leaders to either resist the development of black self-organisation or to accommodate it within the formal structures of unions.

The TUC responded to the need for change and for black workers to be able to play a more active role in the trade union movement. Speaking on behalf of the General Council at the 1978 TUC Congress, Ken Gill, Chair of the Race Relations Advisory Committee and General Secretary of the Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Staffs Union warned against racial prejudice within trade unions, saying that black workers would form their own trade unions if prejudice prevented them from being elected to union posts.

By the early 1980's the TUC had firmly embraced the need for change and formed the TUC Race Relations Committee in its own right. This was followed by the establishment of two reserved seats for black workers on the TUC General Council and the creation of the Annual TUC Black Workers' Conference. In 1993 the conference was changed to allow delegates to debate motions from unions, elect members onto the TUC Race Relations Committee and to send a motion from the conference to be debated at the annual TUC Congress.


Following the tragic death of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, the subsequent successful campaign supported by the TUC for an inquiry into his death, and the publication of Sir William Macpherson's Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report in 1999, the TUC set up its own Task Group in 2000. The Task Group's work was an extension of the priority given by the General Council to race issues, in particular the Unite Against Racism campaign, which included two national demonstrations to counter the electoral success of the National Front and the establishment of the Respect (subsequently Rise) anti-racism festival in London.

The TUC Stephen Lawrence Task Group was chaired by General Secretary John Monks, and its membership included the general secretaries of the six largest unions in the TUC. The Task Group recognised the need to tackle institutional racism in the labour market and within trade unions. The Task Group published an action plan which focused on actions that unions should be taking with employers, within unions themselves, and on how the TUC would tackle institutional racism. The action plan has provided the basis for the work of the TUC and trade unions on anti-racism.

The Task Group also proposed a rule change to the TUC constitution making it a condition of membership that unions fight and promote equality. This rule change was adopted at the 2001 TUC Congress alongside the creation of the TUC Equality Audit that is carried out every two years to check on the trade unions progress on equality.