Union strategies for tackling race inequality

To coincide with the annual Trades Union Congress black workers' conference, held in April 2002, this feature reviews a range of positive action initiatives taken by UK unions over the last few years to combat race inequalities in employment and within their own organisations.

The widely publicised 1999 'MacPherson report' following the police investigation into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, highlighted institutional racism as a major problem in British society. Three years on, this article reviews how the trade union movement has responded to calls for the social partners to tackle institutional racism in employment.

Fighting for race equality in employment

With recent Labour Force Survey data showing that ethnic minority workers continue to experience disadvantage in the labour market, including higher rates of unemployment and fewer promotional opportunities, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and its affiliated unions have recently stepped up their campaigns to tackle race inequalities through a number of initiatives. For example, pay inequalities were highlighted in a new TUC report Black and underpaid, published in April 2002, and wage discrimination was also the main theme of the 2002 TUC black workers' conference held on 12-14 April.

Some other initiatives centre on equipping trade union representatives with the skills and knowledge to deal more effectively with workplace race issues - for example, the TUC's new Tackling racism online course for union representatives has been welcomed by trade unionists. The Communication Workers' Union has produced 'prompt cards' which ask a series of questions to help representatives deal with cases of race discrimination. In the West Midlands, the TUC, the regional Racial Equality Council and the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) have signed a historic agreement to facilitate better service for people who complain of race discrimination.

Some unions have focused their efforts on monitoring the ethnicity of their members, a practice recommended by the CRE in order to establish the nature and extent of inequality, the areas where action is most needed, and whether measures aimed at reducing race inequalities are succeeding. The TUC has also used the recent Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 as a platform to campaign for proactive policies on race equality in the public sector. The TUC says that it would like to see:

  • organisational reviews to identify whether institutional racism exists within workplaces;
  • employers and trade unions working in partnership to develop clear action plans to tackle institutional racism in the workplace; and
  • employers and unions working in partnership to set targets, with clear time limits, to achieve fair representation of black workers at all levels in the workplace.

This latest campaigning and bargaining tool follows the longer-standing TUC Stephen Lawrence Task Group, which committed the TUC to a 'serious shift of resources to tackle racism in the workplace', including working in partnership with the CBI employers' organisation towards eradicating racism. The cornerstone of the Task Group's work was a programme of education courses for union representatives.

Some research indicates that unions are already having a positive impact on race equality in employment. For example, a recent analysis of Labour Force Survey data by David Metcalf of the Centre for Economic Performance reveals the beneficial effect of unionisation on pay structure by ethnicity: non-white workers who are members of trade unions earn 8.4% more than their non-union counterparts. Further evidence is provided by the 1998 Workplace Employee Relations Survey (the most recent), which found that there is an association between larger-size workplaces, the existence of an equal opportunities policy and the greater employment of ethnic minorities. It is no coincidence that larger-size workplaces are also, of course, where union presence is greatest.

However, a December 2001 survey by the public services union Unison found that whilst the majority (59%) of employers in the public sector said that the union had a role in the formulation of policies on tackling institutional racism, in a substantial minority (41%) of public sector organisations this was not the case. Unison has called for employers to work in partnership with the union to deliver improvements in employment practices and working cultures to tackle the problem of institutional racism. Specifically, this would include setting targets for the recruitment, promotion and training of ethnic minority workers to reflect the ethnic composition of the local area, together with reviews and monitoring of policies and procedures.

Tackling internal race inequalities

The above account suggests that unions are finally taking race discrimination in the UK labour market seriously and are directing resources towards tackling the problem. But what of unions as organisations and as employers? How good is their race equality record?

The UK trade union movement has come under fire in recent years for failing to deliver race equality within its own organisations. Gurbux Singh, chair of the CRE, has stated: 'Trade union leaders who do not ensure that their own organisation is at the forefront when it comes to racial equality will stumble at the first hurdle when it comes to the rest of society.' Here, Mr Singh links the question of internal race equality with unions' ability legitimately and effectively to pursue race equality in the wider labour market.

The internal picture is not altogether positive, although there are some recent initiatives to move forward on internal race equality, which are outlined below. Despite the existence of one high-profile black leader - Bill Morris, general secretary of the UK's third-largest union, the Transport and General Workers' Union- black and ethnic minority people remain woefully under-represented in trade union decision-making structures. According to a 1998 survey conducted by the Labour Research Department, black union representatives constitute only 4% of the total, with black women just 1%. The problem of under-representation is particularly acute among the union movement's paid officials, of which a tiny minority of about 2% is from ethnic minority groups.

In response, the TUC has developed a number of positive action initiatives. For example, in July 2001 it established a 'mentoring' scheme for black and ethnic minority representatives and officers. The programme provides 'mentees' with an experienced trade union officer as a mentor, whose role is to provide support and development over a one-year period. The aim is to give black trade unionists the skills and knowledge they need to advance their careers in the union movement. At the same time, the TUC's national education centre set up a Certificate in Management course to progress black and Asian union staff into senior positions. The TUC is also trying to increase the number of black tutors delivering trade union education by recruiting black representatives to its tutor training courses.

Some individual unions have also taken action. For example, the MSF section of the professional and skilled workers' union, Amicus, has held a black leadership course to encourage the progression of black representatives. Larger trade unions have also taken at least some steps to ensure that a black and ethnic minority voice can be heard within the union by developing race equality structures, including race equality officers, race equality committees and conferences, and reserved seats on governing bodies. Unison has been at the forefront of these developments with the establishment of black self-organised groups, the purpose of which is to provide structural mechanisms through which under-represented groups can influence mainstream decision-making committees.


The above discussion indicates that unions have now taken up the challenge of tackling both workplace racism and race inequalities within their own organisations. In the case of the former, efforts are largely focused around equipping the white majority of union representatives to recognise institutional racism and to tackle it in partnership with other relevant agencies. In terms of tackling internal race inequalities, it is now widely recognised by trade unions that leadership at all levels must become representative and more inclusive of ethnic diversity. Strategies to achieve this have centred on a range of positive action measures designed to increase the ethnic minority 'voice' in trade unions, but these have encountered a mixed response. Supporters argue that black under-representation will not be reversed without interventions of the kinds outlined above. Detractors, meanwhile, regard positive action measures as tokenistic gestures, which do little to transform the unions' image as bastions of white, male power. Although both arguments may have some merits, there can be no doubt that it is essential that the UK trade union movement creates a critical mass of black activists if it is to be successful in tackling institutional, workplace racism. (Gill Kirton, University of North London)

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