Activists want to organise workers, helping them realise their power in the workplace. The employers use every trick and device to prevent us from achieving the unity that allows us to achieve this aim.
For example. racism exists within unions just as it does within wider society. Most union members don’t like to think of themselves as racist or prejudiced, yet it’s difficult not to carry some unconscious baggage in a society so marked by inequality and many have to rationalise this inequality with racist ideas. The competition for jobs feeds into fear, prejudice and resentment. At a personal level it’s hard for white trade unionists to understand the pain inflicted by a casual remark with racist overtones. But even these incidents undermine union solidarity.
Often casual or institutional racism is ignored as its viewed as being too difficult an obstacle to counter or challenge. Sometimes ignoring backward ideas or opting for tokenism that doesn’t challenge established relations can seem like the path of least resistance. This tendency is fostered and encouraged by those, including some union officials, who encourage business unionism or partnership with the employer.
The recent statement from Unite encouraging activists to oppose the new anti trade union legislation is a case in point. Members are being encouraged to write letters to the press as “proud British workers” objecting to the new legislation. All the references to British workers are divisive and ignore the composition of the workforce in Britain today.
The number of foreign-born people of working age in the UK more than doubled from 2.9 million in 1993 to slightly more than 6 million in 2013. The share of foreign-born people in total employment increased from 7.2% in 1993 to 15.2% in 2013. Compared to the early 2000s, the presence of foreign-born workers has grown fastest in relatively low-skilled sectors and occupations.
The government and media are continually playing on people’s legitimate fears about job and income security by whipping up racism. The determination of the government to maintain a ‘fortress’ has nothing to do with the supposed burden that refugees place upon the country, and far more to do with the political management of the labour force. The scapegoating of migrants is a tool used by governments and employers to undermine the independence of new migrant workers while differentiating them from the existing workforce to sow divisions and make the workforce easier to manage.
Workplace activists can’t ignore these attempts to divide migrant workers from existing workers and need to oppose racism wherever it raises its head. However, there’s another reason why we have to oppose ideas that divide us.
Democracy at work is a vital tool in helping us achieve workers power. Real workplace democracy can only be achieved if our organisation and culture includes all workers. This means removing any barriers to participation in union structures in the workplace and challenging prejudice and discrimination in all its forms. So we have to develop ideas and tactics that help us undermine ‘common-sense’ racist ideas to build greater unity and to create a more democratic culture, and stronger organisation, in the workplace.
The current refugee crisis has provoked a huge wave of human solidarity across the country. Up to a third of people in Britain have given donations, money or the offer of shelter to refugees. The convoys of aid to Calais are a wonderful example of the creativity of those determined to give aid and show solidarity with migrants stuck in terrible conditions. Some activists have started to raise the idea of collections and donations at work. I raised this last week at a members meeting and was surprised at how supportive people were. We are now trying to work out the mechanics of collecting aid and contacting one of the convoys to see if we can make a donation and maybe encourage some activists to join the convoy. As well as raising material aid and solidarity, organising support for migrants in the workplace helps break down some of the everyday racism many workers accept from government, employers and the media. Helping migrants in the camps can help us build stronger workplace organisation.