Anti-racism  •  Reviews

How Black and Asian workers fought bosses and unions in the 20th century

07 October 2021

Jeremy Dewar reviews The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain by Ron Ramdin, Verso, 2017, 656pp.

Ron Ramdin’s epic book is often unfairly overlooked in Black History Month but brings together many useful details and presents a bold analysis of the development of the Black working class in Britain. Ramdin was an active Black trade unionist in the years that the book covers, which makes it particularly interesting.

Early on Ramdin makes a point that permeates the rest of the book: ‘The reason for the origin of Negro slavery, then, was economic, not racial; it was the cheapness of labour rather than the colour of labour which was decisive.’ Slavery caused modern racism, not the other way round, as planters sought to justify slavery.

The conclusion Ramdin draws is that the Black working class is a ‘class fraction’, with its own special needs and conditions.

He paints a vivid picture of the role played by unions in the anti-colonial struggles from the 1930s to the 1960s — the post-war Labour government and later the TUC played an active role in exporting bureaucratic trade unionism into the colonies in order to constrain these struggles, as a service to British imperialism. Against this historical backdrop, young workers came to Britain well versed in (sometimes violent) mass struggle but sceptical of trade unions.

Black workers and the unions

In May 1965 one of the first important “immigrant” strikes took place at Courtaulds Red Scar Mill in Preston. Asian and Caribbean workers were concentrated in one part of the plant, where they were confronted with the imposition of a 50% increase in work for a 3% pay ‘rise’, which in fact left them still worse off than white workers.

The TGWU Chair at the factory (who had signed the productivity deal over the strikers’ heads) denounced the strike as ”unofficial” and “racial”. In the end the “active collaboration of white workers and the union with management” condemned the strike to failure.

Of course the racial divide within the working class was not always this bad. Ramdin gives a detailed account of the Grunwick dispute run by Asian women – the ‘Sari Strikers’. He also has generous praise for the work of local white trade unionists, especially Jack Dromey, then head of the local Brent Trades Council, and the mass pickets and solidarity strikes that responded to their call.

Unfortunately, more typical of the period were strikes like those at Imperial Typewriters and Mansfield Hosiery Mill, where branch officials, shop stewards and occasionally white rank and file trade unionists combined to deny the Black workers not only solidarity but even the right to elect their own representatives within the union structures. In one unnamed dispute a white male shop steward supposedly representing Pakistani women workers said he would ‘spit’ on an Asian if they moved in next door to him.

The TUC denied that there even was a problem with racial prejudice among the white working class and certainly not within the unions. But the statistics do not lie. Whereas Black workers were more likely than white workers to join a trade union (61% to 47%), “before 1970 there were only 13 immigrant part-time officials” (p330) out of thousands of shop stewards and branch committee members.


Ramdin concludes his book with a final chapter on Black working class consciousness:

“While [Black workers] may hope for a positive response from the white “labour aristocracy” and the white working class generally, their autonomous struggle (the direct result of British racism) will continue as their urgent, insistent demands extend to every aspect of their essential deprivation.’(p508, final words of the text)

Not only is this correct, Ramdin gives credence to initiatives like the Black Trade Unionists Solidarity Movement which fought openly for ‘changes within the trade union movement’. (p368). Hence his approval of the right to real caucuses of the oppressed.

But here he rests his analysis. What is missing is how the white working class is also ‘fractured’, with class fractions constantly coming into being and merging.

It is evident from the Grunswick dispute and elsewhere that a section of the white working class is anti-racist, especially among youth and in the metropolitan centres. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 saw thousands of white youth support Black people’s struggles.

On the other hand many older white workers supported Brexit for racist, anti-immigrant reasons and trade union leaders have even supported ‘British jobs for British workers’. Institutional racism (and sexism) are still tolerated.

The solution is to forge alliances between class fractions in order to reunite the class at a higher level. For that, there needs to be a party that can fight for the interests of the whole of the working class, sometimes through the battle of ideas (against racism) and sometimes through force. The fight against racism cannot wait for the unity of the working class – it is the way to win it.

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