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Trade unions can play a crucial role in combating racism

The forthcoming UN Anti-Racism Day is a chance to build unity against prejudice, says WEYMAN BENNETT

MORE than 1,000 trade unionists and workplace activists took part in Saturday’s online conference organised by the TUC and Stand Up To Racism, From Covid19 to #BlackLivesMatter — Fighting for Anti-Racist Workplaces.

The event was part of the build-up to the international #WorldAgainstRacism #NoRacismNoFascism day of protest to mark UN Anti-Racism Day on Saturday March 20. 

The conference included opening plenaries including speakers from Unison, PCS, the TUC, NEU, CWU, RMT and BFAWU, alongside activists from All Black Lives UK, and international speakers from the US and Greece, where the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement struck a serious blow with the defeat of fascist Golden Dawn.

The workshops really reflected the breadth and sharpness of the anti-racist struggle. 

The conference came just as a TUC report highlighting the institutional racism that has led to BAME front-line workers and communities being hit disproportionately by the Covid-19 crisis hit the headlines. 

A session on institutional racism with over 100 taking part heard from activists in Unite, CWU, RMT, Unison, and the Hazards campaign — a panel that sparked a brilliant discussion about the experience of racism and how to collectively challenge it. 

The Tories have continued their racist “hostile environment” for refugees and migrants throughout the pandemic, while the inspirational Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has clearly focused debate among trade unionists about how we respond to the racism and scapegoating. 

Two sessions — on solidarity with refugees, and on opposing the hostile environment, brought together over 100 people to hear speakers from FBU, CWU, the TUC, UCU and Unison, alongside Care4Calais, Windrush campaigner Patrick Vernon, Grenfell campaigner Moyra Samuels, refugees from the Penally and Napier camps and migrant workers in UVW union.

The events on Capitol Hill and ongoing attempts by the far right to break through into the mainstream were also a key focus of debate. 

A workshop on this topic was attended by 70 activists, hearing from US anti-racist campaign United Against Hate, Stand Up to Racism’s Michael Bradley, the TUC’s Stiofan O Nuallain, author of TUC report: The Rise of the Far Right: Building a Trade Union Response, and leading activists from GMB and CWU. 

The biggest session was on decolonising education and the legacy of slavery and empire, reflecting the impact of the BLM movement in opening up big questions at the heart of the system on the history and existence of deeply entrenched systemic racism. 

Liverpool Lord Mayor Anna Rothery spoke alongside an anti-racist campaigner from Barbados and speakers from the UCU, EIS and NEU unions.

Key leading figures in the trade union movement spoke, including NEU general secretary Kevin Courtney, BFAWU general secretary Sarah Woolley, RMT assistant general secretary Steve Hedley, Unison’s Margaret Greer, Roger McKenzie and Gloria Mills, CWU vice-president Jane Loftus, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, NDU president Daniel Kebede and TUC race equality officer Wilf Sullivan, who was a key organiser of the event with Stand Up to Racism. 

The mood of the conference and the growing number of new black activists getting involved across the trade union movement shows that in the present crisis the trade unions can play a crucial role in combating racism and opposing the politics of divide and rule.

The international day of action on March 20, supported by the TUC, gives us all the chance to build a positive show of anti-racist unity — get involved. 

Weyman Bennett is co-convener of Stand Up to Racism.

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