At Wednesday’s Annual General Meeting of the Greater London UNISON Regional Council, the meeting will be presented with a worthy statement from the Regional Committee responding to the recent convictions of two of the killers of Stephen Lawrence. This poses the question to trade union activists of what we should be doing, in our everyday activity, to challenge racism.
Whilst we should of course continue to be concerned about, and campaign around, gross manifestations of institutional racism in our society, such as the disproportionate impact on young black men of police stop and search powers – and about deaths in custody – as a trade union we have a particular responsibility, to our black and minority ethnic (BME) members, to the workforce and to the wider society, to understand and uproot institutional racism in the work environment.
More than ten years after the MacPherson report, and after a generation of equal opportunity in employment policies initiated in response to the equalities legislation of the 1970s, institutional racism is alive and well in the organisations which employ UNISON members.
This has many different manifestations. In many organisations BME workers are under represented in the workforce in comparison to the community (and in some cases, particular ethnic groups are under represented). BME people are more likely to be unemployed – a problem which is likely to worsen in current economic circumstances.
In almost every organisation, a “race pay gap” between the median earnings of white employees and the (lower) median earnings of BME employees is an expression of the vertical segregation of the workforce, with BME employees disproportionately present in lower paid groups of workers.
UNISON has produced handy guidance to all our branches on how to identify and take up these and other issues. The issue which I particularly want to consider in this post is that of the persistent over representation of BME workers amongst those being dealt with formally in line with employers’ disciplinary procedures.
Most UNISON members work in organisations where the disciplinary procedure is either a collective agreement to which we have signed up or is, at least, a document upon which we have been consulted. Therefore, where there is evidence that the application of these procedures is disproportionately impacting BME employees this has to be a very serious concern for our trade union, given our commitment to equality.
Such evidence was widely identified in the 1990s. Initially employers denied the evidence but when convinced, to their credit they tried first of all to analyse disciplinary cases to look for evidence of discrimination. This was, by and large, a fruitless search. Although there was clear evidence that the disciplinary procedure was being applied disproportionately against BME employees, each particular disciplinary case, when analysed, appeared (at least from the perspective of the employer) to be justified and appropriate.
The problem wasn’t within the procedure, it was with how and why some employees came to be part of the procedure (and others did not).
A number of branches of UNISON in London Borough Councils jointly applied pressure on our employers who, through the provincial employers’ organisation, commissioned research which led to the publication, in 1999, of a report from the Institute for Employment Studies(IES) entitled “The Organisational and Managerial Implications of Devolved Personnel Assessment Procedures”. (I can’t blog a link to that report as it is not available online, but a very similar report commissioned from the same research organisation by Nottingham City Council shortly afterwards is available – and arrives at startlingly similar conclusions).
In a nutshell (and I would recommend ploughing through the report itself), alongside a number of other findings this research found that managers acknowledged that the ethnicity of an employee was an important factor in deciding whether to take formal proceedings against them, and also that white managers tended systematically to rate the performance of white subordinates more favourably than those of BME subordinates.
Since disciplinary action was frequently used, as managers admitted in interviews, as a surrogate means of managing perceived performance problems, BME staff are at greater risk of such action, as they were more likely to be viewed as poor performers. This analysis is intuitively plausible from years of working alongside managers, the majority of whom are clearly not consciously or overtly racist, yet whose collective decisions reproduce racially discriminatory outcomes over decades.
This is most certainly not a problem for UNISON in members in local government alone. Minal Mistry and Javed Latoo, writing in 2009 in the British Journal of Medical Practitioners about the experience in the health service offer the following analysis which reinforces the conclusions from the IES research in local government;
“In recent times the experience of overt racial bigotry and prejudice is seldom seen. Nevertheless discrimination against members of a social group may persist because it is so deeply entrenched within society, by the personal and collective unconscious, that it becomes the automatic response even when no conscious intent is present. “Everyday discrimination” is the discreet, pervasive discriminatory acts experienced by stigmatised groups on a daily basis, and highlights the modern perspective that racism is subtle.”
The report on The Experience of Black and Minority Ethnic staff in Higher Education in England points in a similar direction, as does the latest Equalities Annual Report from the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) which demonstrates an over representation of BME staff amongst those facing formal disciplinary action, and that a higher proportion of BME staff against whom action was taken faced the ultimate sanction of dismissal.
The evidence is therefore that, across all UNISON Service Groups, the disciplinary procedures which we negotiate with (or are consulted upon by) the employers, and with which we are operating every day, are consistently disadvantaging BME workers, primarily because of the unconscious prejudices of predominantly white managers.
Because this disadvantage appears to be rooted in a systematic tendency on the part of (white) managers to view white subordinates as better performing than BME subordinates, the long term solution must be to overcome the vertical segregation that sees the hierarchies of our employers get whiter as you go up.
Long term solutions to injustice are never good enough however. This week and next week our employers’ disciplinary procedures will be disadvantaging BME workers and trade union members. The very least that we can do is to continue to assert this awkward truth, so as to maximise pressure upon employers to work with us to confront, and ultimately overcome it.