Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Confronting Racism at work

All this fuss about the Met reminds me that I spent a fair bit of time in my office the other day dealing – as I so often do – with racism. The pervasive nature of racism in the workplace means that it is present as an element of many of the circumstances with which union reps have to deal – and it is perceived to be present in many circumstances as well (and the two sets of circumstances overlap but are not coterminous).

Our Union rightly devotes great energy to the overt offensive racism of the BNP and I wholeheartedly support all attempts to drive them back into the sewers where they belong.

However, for many of our black members it is the everyday experience of institutional racism in the workplace which is the problem the Union needs to confront.

And it is tricky.

Way back I guess it was easier to see the problem. In Lambeth – where I work – the Council workforce in 1981 was 90% white. In the 1980s when believing in equality marked you out as part of the “loony left” a vigorous approach to equality locally changed the composition of the Council workforce so that it was about 50/50 black and white.

Back in the early 90s, when the gains of the 80s were first under attack, the employer used to get very angry when accused of institutional racism – but for the last ten years or so the employer has adopted a more sophisticated response of hand-wringing. They cannot ignore evidence that white workers do better than black workers in recruitment and promotion and that black workers are more likely than white workers to be on the receiving end of disciplinary action.

When told that they are institutionally racist many large organisations will now say “yes, I know, isn't it awful, what shall we do about it?”

They cannot deny the problem because research which they themselves commissioned back in the 90s comprehensively demonstrated the tenacity of racism in the workplace. A few years later one local authority spent a six figure sum on an inquiry which looked in considerable detail at a particular instance of workplace conflict which included elements of institutional racism.

Since I know a few fellow union activists read this blog I would welcome suggestions about how we try to expose and uproot this institutional racism. Back when UNISON activists could lodge tribunal complaints we tried to use individual litigation to confront this collective problem and I think we ran up against the limits of individual legal action pretty quickly. The Hackney branch once put a lot of energy into getting the former Commission for Racial Equality to investigate their lead employer and I am not sure that that really achieved sustained change either.

What is to be done?

No comments: