ERWC Motion: Year of the Black worker, the legacy and celebrating Black women past, present and future.

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2024 National Women's Conference
13 October 2023

2023 was designated by Unison as the year of the Black worker. Conference, it was an incredible year to be part of both as members and as Black female activists. On a national level at the Delegates and other national conferences, many events and initiatives celebrated this, including fringe and the Black members events.

Having a voice and being seen as Black members and workers has made this a huge part of the success of the year’s designation. However, in equal importance, we must all use our voices to support the legacy of the year of the Black worker and show continued solidarity with our Black female comrades going forward.

We know that Unison’s membership is currently made up of around 80% women and as such, we should ensure that a legacy remains by continuing to collectively be the voice that raises our Black sisters. We know that Black women are underrepresented in Unison roles and at conferences, this must change to make it truly representative.

There are many prolific Black women who have shaped union activism and equality in the UK; one such example is Jayaben Desai, who between 1976 – 1978 led a strike (backed by Apex and a local postal union) when she protested against her treatment at her job in the Grunwick photo processing laboratory in North London; she was fed up of being humiliated by the management, receiving lower pay in comparison to similar factories (despite the passing of the Equal Pay Act of 1970); shameful disregard for basic provisions such as going to the toilet; and being asked to do (though they really couldn’t refuse) short notice overtime which required them to work into the late hours of the night.

This treatment, of course, was not just because they were women but also an intersectional issue of race as the employers were aware that the majority of the impacted employees were immigrants to the UK escaping persecution from South Asia and were treated as unskilled immigrants as the norm. When Desai walked out, 137 colleagues also walked out with her (there were 500 employees) and continued to strike for 2 years. It is also recorded that at one event there were 20,000 (male, female, Black and white) people supporting their strike. Whilst they did not get the outcome they wanted, it did leave a legacy of united activism, challenging inequality, and highlighted the issue of the stereotyping of Southern Asian women.

What this motion seeks to address is the continued recognition and support of Black workers past and to continue this representation and celebration of Black female workers in the present and the future. We only need to look at the statistics: TUC analysis reveals that 60% (2020) of self-employed Black women are low paid; London School of Economics (2021) also stated that Black women are the least likely to be among the UK’s top earners compared to any other racial or gender group. Doreen Lawrence (Chair of the Labour Race Equality Act Taskforce) cited the systematic inequality which led to Black communities being disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic (Guardian, 12th October 2022); and in 2017, the TUC analysis of 3.1million Black workers, showed that they were much more likely to be in insecure jobs such as zero hours contracts.

The Eastern Region Women’s committee ask the National Women’s committee to undertake the following:

1)Work with the NEC and its campaign committee to highlight historical and present Black female activists in its digital campaigns.

2)Work with the NEC and its campaign committee to specifically refer to historical Black female activists as inspirational figures and to include them and their activism as part of our inheritance and legacy in Unison through inclusion in educational materials (digital and otherwise).

3)Work with the NEC and its campaign committee together with SOG’s and appropriate bodies to build stronger campaigns referring to past / present wins for Black women with Black women where it applies.

4)Create an award for an outstanding Black woman (or women) activist(s) of the year as part of the legacy of the year of the Black worker 2023; and

5)Work together with SOGs to ensure greater representation of Black women in positions within Unison at all levels, and as delegates to national conferences.