Why Unions Should Support Black Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter movement doesn't just need allies who condemn the murder of George Floyd — it needs comrades in the fight against racial injustice. Trade unionists have to join that fight.

People hold placards as they join a spontaneous Black Lives Matter march at Trafalgar Square. Hollie Adams / Getty Images

The activism and memory of Martin Luther King Jr has rightly been evoked in recent weeks as hundreds of thousands of people across the globe have taken to the streets to demand an end to racial discrimination.

I have spent this time reflecting on our responsibility as a trade union to raise our game and be leaders in this struggle. To those in our ranks who say this is not our fight, I simply suggest that it is impossible to say that all lives matter when all the evidence suggests that some lives — whether they be black lives, women’s lives, disabled lives, or working-class lives — are not judged to matter as much as others.

Every so often this inequality is highlighted. Whether it be the murder of George Floyd, or the illegal deportation of black Britons as part of the Windrush scandal, or the impoverished lives that were taken by suicide owing to the failings of our social security system. Discrimination is hardwired into our system. It is a hardwiring that favors one group only: the rich and powerful.

When we talk about police brutality in the modern setting, those who wish to bat the issue away should remember that the police have also been weaponized against working-class communities more generally. As we approach the anniversary of the Battle of Orgreave, a moment where the state legalized violence against working-class miners, we should stand in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters who face systemic discrimination by the police.

It is the historical task of the trade union movement to wield its power in the workplace so as to defeat discrimination wherever we find it. We know from industrial experience that it is only through unity and the promotion of collective solutions that we win. Trade unions cross every divide in society and our battle against all forms of exploitation makes us best placed to unify people against racism.

I fear that we have siloed the issue of equality for too long, disconnecting it from industrial struggle and class inequality, acting as if it is something we can tackle separately. This is a major mistake that many make, and we must get to work now to correct it.

In the union movement when we ask workers to unite, we do not discriminate. As with all of the struggles that we face, we are stronger when we make a common cause. Ending racial discrimination has to be linked to raising the profile of class inequality.

We will not duck this fight or outsource our anti-racism work to other organizations. We will partner with those who share our aims, but this fight has to be at the center of our everyday struggle and not seen as an additional element of our work.

Black lives do not just need allies who condemn what happened to George Floyd — they need comrades who are prepared to do the work to make change happen. Martin Luther King Jr spoke about “four catastrophes”: militarism, materialism, racism, and poverty. We must ensure that we fight in his memory, within working-class communities, to take up his challenge of confronting these evils.