The current political climate is toxic. During the general election campaign the Tories, the media and UKIP have repeatedly pushed racist narratives and myths to play off fears and gain votes). At a time of high tension, trepidation and alarm over the rise in racist attacks, affronts to dignity and erosion of basic human rights, this event, organised by Stand Up To Racism could not have been more timely.
Over 130 people attended and debated a wide range of pertinent issues. Trade unionists played a major role with UNISON Assistant General Secretary, Roger McKenzie joining TUC Regional Secretary Lee Baron and a good number of workplace trade union activists from across the region.
A rallying cry to take on the Tories’ racist assault on migrants went out from the opening plenary. Andrew Scattergood, the FBU firefighters’ union regional chair, stated, “We have far more in common with each other as the working class than the establishment…This is an example of how the trade union and anti-racist movements can come together.” Scattergood went on to suggest some really useful action points for workplace activists to raise with colleagues who blame migrants for the pressures they face:
• It is not migrants that want insecure working conditions. It is the bosses who play divide and rule to create them.
• We have far more in common with other working people who have arrived from other parts of the world than with the economic and political elite driving through austerity policies.
• Who was it that closed your local fire station, school, council office and library – certainly not migrants.
• Trade unions can and should recruit and involve migrant workers – they need representation and we need their experience and solidarity.
• Trade Unions need to be embedded in the anti-racist movement, nNot burying our heads in the sand and treating racism as a complicated issue for someone else to challenge.
• Trade Unions need to argue and fight for legislation to protect migrant workers.
Above all we need to develop and explain an alternative vision for society. Our blame should be firmly directed at those causing problems, not migrants.
A highlight of the event, for myself, was the contribution from Saffiyah Khan and Saira Zafar, the two young Muslim women who directly exposed and humiliated the EDL fascists in Birmingham a few weeks ago. Both were defiant, articulate and determined in their call to fight back in greater numbers if fascists threaten to organise and march in our streets.
Saira Zafar, explained how the altercation began because she felt forced to verbally confront the EDL with the message their Islamophobic hate was not welcome. This, after police refused her the right to peacefully display a placard with the same message. She was immediately surrounded by a big crowd of middle aged, white men, shouting and chanting racist abuse, while the police looked on. This is the direct result of the ‘liberal’ position that the EDL have a ‘right to protest’. Young Birmingham residents are denied the right to walk safely in their own public square and their freedom of speech removed!
Saffiyah recalled how she then offered her direct support as shown in the now famous photo. Saffiyah called on us all to educate people to break down barriers of ignorance and hatred. She advocated a direct action approach to taking on fascists, arguing they must always know they will be opposed when they mobilise. Britain First are threatening to visit Birmingham on 3rd June, so hopefully some of us will listen to that.
Roger McKenzie, unison,rightlypointed out one in five black people in U.K. have seen or experienced racial harassment in the past year alone. His view was that black people would only be surprised that the figures were not even higher than this. He recalled conversations he has had with people scared to send their children to school due the threat of racial harassment and violence.
Roger argued we need to be more organised to take action to oppose these developments. Where we encounter racism in our workplaces we should call racists out over it. We should point out, for example, that many services would not exist without migrant workers. He challenged the audience to take on the hard task of convincing people who don’t attend conferences and rallies, suggesting we should go into workplaces, and localities such as housing estates, cafes and pubs where we may fear a hostile response. He also made a wider argument for a ‘fundamental shift in society in favour of working class people’ and that he is not prepared to give victory to those making all the money who choose to divide us.
Another highlight of the day was the workshop to discuss how anti-racists should approach the Prevent duty in workplaces. This is a highly pertinent issue, given the legal obligations placed on workers across the entire public sector in this regard. The panel, in the session, were very helpful and clear in their explanations of the negative impact of Prevent but also gave examples of how it had been challenged.
Tahla Ahmed from the Muslim Council of Britain suggested that he had encountered high levels of ignorance about diversity and Islam in official correspondence in government and establishment circles. Azad Ali from MEND argued that the true agenda of Prevent was to push individuals who happen to be Muslim out of social, political and civic spaces. This was making it harder for opponents of right wing narratives to present counter arguments about, for example, the causes of terrorism or about Palestine or about foreign policy. He suggested this explains the continued use of Prevent even though it has had minimal impact on the risk of terrorism itself.
There was a useful debate about the best methods to respond to Prevent in practice. Speakers stated many public sector staff can feel intimidated and isolated at work, if they challenge training programmes or raise counter arguments while they are taking place. It was suggested that trade unions should back up excellent policy with assurances of robust action if people are threatened, disciplined or sacked due to challenging Prevent.
It was concluded, we cannot allow Prevent to proscribe whole areas of discussion. If the Tories get re-elected we will encounter tough times ahead as further austerity feeds into insecurity. We need to support each other, report negative experiences of Prevent to trade unions and take action to support those who are victims of ‘professional’ Islamophobia.
Overall, this was an excellent day. We moved the gear up from well-meaning discussion to calls for direct action to step up the fight against racism. We need more union activists to get involved in anti-racist campaigning. There is a lot we can learn from each other, especially from those with youth, energy and determination to take this forward.