Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Why it took my parents so long to join a trade union

My parents decided to join a trade union this week. But as migrants in insecure work, why did it take them so long, asks Rania Ramli

Of the 12 trade unions affiliated with the Labour party, every single one is run by a white man. Although clearly a problem in terms of representation and diversity, this is better thought of as a symptom of a wider issue surrounding trade unionism – the fact that women and workers from ethnic minorities are still often unable to engage, even at a grassroots level.

My parents moved to the United Kingdom as migrants in the 1990s and although they are working class, they have never been members of any trade union. The traditional notion of worker solidarity and the rich history behind unionism was not something they grew up with or necessarily understood. But even for me, having been born in one of the most ethnically diverse parts of London, I did not see the lack of trade unionism in my community as a problem until I joined the Labour party.

One of the most remarkable stories of workers uniting to challenge the established authority that I have heard was the Grunwick dispute of 1976. Although they personally saw few long-term improvements in their conditions, the bravery of the predominantly Asian women in coming together and demanding change was unprecedented. Yet, even when the women were on picket lines and threatening a hunger strike, a vacuum remained where strong trade union solidarity should have been. Traditionally excluded from what were institutionally racist unions, the support that the women received was limited, with one describing it like ‘honey on the elbow – you can smell it, you can feel it, but you cannot taste it’.

Historically, ethnic minority workers in the UK have been let down by the trade union movement whose job it was to offer solidarity. Although this is not necessarily the case today, history is a powerful tool for shaping attitudes and partly explains why ethnic minority engagement with the movement is lacking now. Unlike those growing up in families where trade unions are often talked about, many of today’s workers from BME backgrounds fail to see unions as having had the same positive impact on their life.

Migrant workers, who are significantly more likely to come from an ethnic minority background, are also disproportionately represented in low-paid, low-skilled jobs – vulnerable to automation and increasingly concentrated within the gig economy.

My dad is one of an estimated 1.1 million people on a zero-hours contract in the UK, a quarter of whom are from a black and ethnic minority background. This increased insecurity creates an imbalance of power in favour of employers, making it difficult to organise.

Although there are definitely problems in the relationship between ethnic minority workers and trade unions, there is massive potential for a more radical, progressive and far-reaching relationship between the two. The first change must come from within the unions themselves; change to make sure that the exclusion of ethnic minority workers that was common during the times of the Grunwick dispute does not continue today. From translators and campaign material in multiple languages to a willingness to engage with migrant workers – our unions are definitely moving towards greater inclusivity but, as always, more can be done to make sure we stay on this trajectory.

We must also make unions more publicly visible. Growing up in Newham I did not once come across a trade union and was never told about what they could do for me. Community centres, nurseries, universities and shopping centres all represent missed opportunities to engage with ethnic minority workers. Encouraging our unions to make a concerted effort to raise their profile in BME communities is a key step towards challenging notions of a predominantly white trade union movement.

After 23 years in the UK, I am proud that my parents have finally, during HeartUnions week, decided to join a trade union. As Labour party members, those of us from a BME background have a special responsibility to speak to our family and friends about the value and importance of unions, encouraging them to engage and break the stereotype.

I am a proud trade unionist but also a proud BME woman and I hope that soon, the conjunction of these two parts of my identity will no longer seem strange to the average observer. HeartUnions week is a time to celebrate the fantastic achievements of trade unions but we can and must also use it as an opportunity to start the conservations that will make the movement better.

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Rania Ramli is a writer for Progress and BME officer at Labour Students. She tweets @RaniaRamli

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