National Windrush Monument. Photo: The wub/CC
National Windrush Monument. Photo: The wub/CC

Seventy-five years on from the arrival of the Windrush ship from Jamaica, HUGO PIERRE, former Black members rep on the Unison trade union national executive council (writing in a personal capacity), traces the experiences and struggles of Black workers in Britain.


The docking of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury in June 1948 is considered the beginning of modern immigration from the former colonies into the UK, particularly of Black workers from the West Indies. To disguise their role in fomenting racism and discrimination, both historically and more recently, the Tories have pushed the limits of hypocrisy, putting up £750,000 to fund Windrush celebrations around the country. Split on many issues, including on immigration, the Tories are on the one hand desperately signalling ‘national unity’ celebrations while at the same time extending the scope of the ‘hostile environment’ for migrants.

Historically the ruling capitalist class in Britain largely created its wealth because of the enormous exploitation of its colonies. The massive profits from the slave trade prior to the 1775-1783 American War of Independence turned small fishing villages like Liverpool and Bristol into major cities. And the importation of goods such as cotton created the development of industry in Manchester and cities in Yorkshire.

The justification of the human traffic of Blacks into slavery in the colonies led to the development of racism as an ideology. This championed white supremacy and erased black history. It was used to justify the super-exploitation of Black labour power and as a method to divide workers and prevent them from coming together in their mutual interest to fight their exploiters.

Different sections of the capitalist class have used this policy, or not, as it has suited their particular interests. After the American War of Independence and the French revolution, the British ruling class’s reliance on the transatlantic slave trade and slavery itself lessened compared to the needs of its rival imperial competitors. This, coupled with the revolutionary movements in the French West Indian colonies, particularly Haiti, and the developing social movements at home, forced the majority of the representatives of British capitalism to end both the slave trade and slavery in the mid-19th century.

Early experiences

The rise of the Chartists, Britain’s prototype working-class movement, and organised labour also prevented the establishment of openly racist or discriminatory legislation on ‘home soil’. However, racist ideology persisted as part of the ‘divide and rule’ strategy of the ruling class. Escaped slaves and Black workers in service made up varying proportions of the population of London in particular right up to the start of the first world war, during which people from the Caribbean and Africa volunteered to fight as part of the British army. Although some did end up fighting in the European trenches, this was opposed by both the military and the government, fearing the possibility of revolution in the colonies if these soldiers learned to use modern war equipment and became emboldened through defeating a European – German and Italian – enemy.

After the war, a small but significant population of Blacks stayed on to live mainly in British ports. But British soldiers returning from the horrors of the front did not arrive to the land of ‘homes fit for heroes’ that prime minister Lloyd George promised in the 1918 general election. Instead they returned to unemployment and poverty after they were rapidly demobbed. This led to conflict in the summer of 1919 in many British port cities such as Liverpool, Cardiff and London. ‘Race’ riots took place where Black workers that had been working in industries were scapegoated for the unemployment that was endemic after the war. In some instances Black workers were killed while the authorities did very little to intervene. But the repercussions in colonised countries caused concerns in the government, which was forced to play down the role of racism.

The Black population prior to the second world war and the large influx of Black US troops was around 20,000. The openly discriminatory practices of the US army were not tolerated by the British population. Again, many volunteers from the West Indies and Africa came to Britain to fight in the war effort of the ‘mother country’. As in the US, war propaganda, the fight for freedom from potential German tyranny, opposition to Nazi ideas of racial purity, and the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination camps, raised the aspirations of many Blacks in the colonial world for liberation.

Some from the Caribbean also had aspirations of remaining or returning to Britain for work after the war. Generally the working class wanted better conditions and no return to the misery of the 1930s. The ruling class in Britain was also contending with the relegation of Britain from a world superpower to being indebted to a new superpower, the US, the enormously strengthened USSR, and the developing colonial revolution.

Post-war immigration

Britain was also ravaged by war in a way that it had not been after world war one where most of the fighting took place in mainland Europe. There was a substantial rebuilding job in the cities and in industry. But this coincided with a great shortage of labour. At the same time, the landslide Labour election victory of 1945 posed the fear of revolution for the ruling class. They were prepared to make substantial concessions to save their system. The nationalisation of key industries and infrastructure and the establishment of the welfare state were a partial revolution, a major encroachment on the capitalists’ sources of profit and power, but a compromise the ruling class was prepared to accept at that time to stave off revolution from below.

Desperate for labour, 100,000 Polish workers and their families, recruitment through a European Voluntary Workers scheme of displaced eastern Europeans, and free transit of Irish workers, were used to fill the gap. In the immediate post-war years no call was made to the colonies for workers, but Labour did introduce the Nationalities Act in 1948, which gave anyone born in the colonies the right to live and work in the UK.

Many of those that set sail on the Windrush from the Caribbean quickly found work. Over half of them had lived in the UK during the war. They were dispatched to many areas of the country. Immigration from the West Indies that followed was a trickle until the mid-1950s when the US imposed stricter controls. Britain until then had still been operating many of the restrictions of the war.

Immigration from the West Indies hit a peak in 1956 and 1957. The mass housebuilding programmes were starting to have an impact but there was still deprivation in cities across the UK. Housing shortages and discrimination by landlords was a common situation faced by many. A ‘colour bar’ also operated in many industries. Those with skills and professional qualifications often could not use them and were forced to work in lower-skilled occupations.

The Conservative governments of the 1950s were actively looking at ways to reduce immigration from the West Indies, following on from an initial Labour cabinet enquiry to try to find ways to limit ‘coloured’ migration into Britain. In the end the Tories introduced bureaucratic methods rather than legislation, which at that stage could have inflamed the rise of nationalist movements, especially in Africa, but also the Caribbean.

The immediate post-war economic upswing was coming to an end by the late 1950s. In the summer of 1958 Blacks were attacked in Nottingham and, more infamously, in the Notting Hill area of London. The Notting Hill riots were almost certainly inspired by supporters of Oswald Mosely, leader of Britain’s fascist Union Movement, even though the police reported to the home secretary that racism was not the motivation for the riot. Mosely himself stood in the 1959 general election in Kensington North but won only 8.1% of the vote.

Black resistance

However, Blacks were no longer willing to tolerate this level of violence and organised to resist. Some attempted to mobilise the local trade unions. Unfortunately, the response of the unions was weak. The Trades Union Council (TUC) released a statement in September following the riots saying, “it is the duty of trade unionists… to aid the authorities in preventing a recurrence of such disorderly and dangerous demonstrations”. It also claimed a “forthright condemnation of every manifestation of racial prejudice and discrimination in any part of the world”. However, the statement did not reflect the experience of discrimination that took place in the workplace, and called for understanding to achieve “satisfactory housing and social integration”.

A delegation of Black workers approached the TUC to organise what was in effect an anti-racist rally in the Notting Hill area. Black workers were also urged to speak to individual trade union branches to put their case against exploitation both “in the colonies” and against the rent racketeering endemic in London at the time. This call to action, if it had been followed by the TUC, could have created a force outside of the ‘authorities’ in the local working-class communities that may have prevented the stabbing to death of a young black carpenter, Kelso Cochrane, in May 1959.

The ruling class reacted to these events with the Tories introducing the restrictive racist immigration controls of the Commonwealth Immigration Act 1962. The Labour government that had come to power in 1964 after 13 years of Tory rule, reacted similarly in 1968 to the potential of more immigration of Kenyan Asians fleeing to the UK, further restricting the numbers of visas issued to those with ‘no close ties’ to the UK.

Black workers were fighting for jobs and recognition by the trade unions. The UK economy still had a labour shortage, especially in some of the newly created public services – the NHS, London Transport (both the Underground and buses), and construction. Many companies had recruitment offices in the Caribbean with signs to ‘work in the mother country’.

Workers would come and often face restrictions on promotion or be tasked with the most menial jobs. Unite the Union offered an official apology 50 years later for the role of a local branch of the union (then the Transport and General Workers’ Union) supporting the ‘colour bar’ and opposing the Bristol Bus Boycott which forced the Bristol Omnibus Company to employ three Black workers. There were also protests in Bristol when a Black nurse was refused promotion and the National Union of Railworkers (forerunner of the RMT transport union) took a case against British Rail to allow a Black worker to take up a guard’s position at Euston station. These were some of the celebrated cases but there were many more.

Industrial militancy

These battles forced the Labour Party into introducing their Race Relations Acts outlawing discrimination, the first of which was passed in 1965. This was something that many Black activists had demanded over the decades. But racism was whipped up further by Labour’s 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act, the same year that right-wing Tory politician Enoch Powell made his infamous ‘rivers of blood speech’ calling for a halt to further immigration and the repatriation of ‘non-whites’ to their country of origin.

The race relations legislation, just as now, did not stop employers breaking it. Black workers had to fight for equality, and in the 1970s militant action was called for. There were many strikes such as at Crepes Sizes in Nottingham and, crucially, the Imperial Typewriters dispute in Leicester in 1974. These strikes were often in opposition to the local trade union leaderships. The Imperial Typewriters strikers quickly picked up the methods of the trade union movement with mass pickets, solidarity funds from other workers, and mass demonstrations through areas of the town. With the support of local Asian youth and the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) they also faced off the local National Front, a neo-Nazi party calling for forced repatriation of all immigrants.

Unlike Imperial Typewriters, the Grunwick strike for trade union recognition in 1976, involving mainly female Asian workers, was officially supported by the workers’ union, APEX. The union leadership attempted to push the dispute through the conciliation service ACAS and a legal route, but the workers instinctively knew that militant action and mobilising the solidarity of the trade union movement would be the best way to win. This dispute received support from key sections of the labour movement. Even three right-wing Labour MPs joined their picket lines as it took on a national significance. A mass picket on the anniversary of the dispute in 1977 resulted in police violence against the strikers that was a foretaste of that to come in the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Even though the workers won their battle in the courts for re-instatement the company refused to take them back.

The industrial militancy of Black workers fed into the pay disputes at Fords in 1978 and later that year when public sector workers began action against the pay restraint policies of the Labour government. The increased militancy of workers in the 1970s developed as the long post-war period of economic growth came to a brutal end. Black youth found they were more likely to be unemployed. Unlike their parents, they were predominantly born in the UK, and while facing racist abuse had no experience of their parents’ homeland to fall back on. They had to stay and fight. And fight they did, especially against police harassment. The use of the hated ‘Sus’ laws (stop and search) and the often violent contact with police resulted in clashes.

Youth rising

There were early warnings signs at the Notting Hill carnival in 1976 when Black youth fought the heavy-handed policing operation. Police snatch squads formed from the hated, and long since disbanded, Special Patrol Group would dive into the crowds to drag out and arrest Black youths indiscriminately. Towards the end of the afternoon the police were showered with bricks, bottles and hastily-made Molotov cocktails. The police did not have the sophisticated equipment they have now and were forced back using dustbin lids as riot shields. Over 300 were injured as the youth rage was vented that day.

This paled into insignificance to the wide-scale uprisings that took place in 1981. In the inner cities police harassment and brutality on the street, mass unemployment, and racist attacks created enormous anger, particularly amongst Black youth. The stop and search of 950 mainly young Black men through Operation Swamp by the police was the catalyst for a rage against the police, first in Brixton in London and then in over 35 cities including Toxteth in Liverpool, St Pauls in Bristol, Handsworth in Birmingham and Southall in London.

With the police unable to control parts of these areas for three or four nights the state had to find a response when the situation settled down. Their aim was to establish a Black middle class capable of policing their own ‘communities’. At the same time denying the role played by racism, particularly police racism.

But Black youth were also developing their own political strategies to fight back. In some areas youth movements started against generalised racist attacks or defence campaigns around specific injustices. In Tower Hamlets, for example, the Bangladeshi Youth League was formed to counter the high level of racist attacks and lack of action from the police, and the presence of the National Front. There were also the Newham 8 and the Bradford 12 campaigns against the wrongful arrest and trial of Asian youth.

As far back as 1974 the LPYS – which by then was under the leadership of the Marxist current in the Labour Party, the Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) – organised a national demonstration against racism in Bradford. In 1978 the LPYS organised a campaign to win a new layer of Black youth through the popularity of the Jamaican People’s National Party. In that year the LPYS had a Black chair, Phil Frampton, and in 1986 the LPYS representative Linda Douglas became the first Black elected member of Labour’s National Executive Committee.

The LPYS played a major part in calling a counter-demonstration to stop the National Front from marching through Lewisham in 1978. But by 1990 the LPYS was effectively closed as a democratic organisation for young workers as part of the right-wing Labour leadership’s witch-hunt against the Marxist left in the party, even though in 1987 the first four Black Labour MPs had been elected and given their support to the LPYS.

Following more inner-city unrest later in the 1980s, it became clear that a broader socialist Black youth movement was necessary to channel discontent. There had been three murders of young Black teenagers in the south-east of London. The presence of the British National Party (BNP) headquarters in Welling was considered a major factor in the rise of racist attacks in the area. Panther UK was formed, taking a lead from the Black Panther Party in the US. By the time of the tragic murder of Stephen Lawrence in April 1993, Panther UK had already organised a hugely successful rally in Brixton, with Bobby Seale, one of the founding members of the US Black Panther Party in 1966, speaking.

This gave a platform to organise the first major demonstration after Stephen Lawrence’s murder – a joint demonstration with Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE) on May 8. An angry demonstration of 10,000 working-class youth, both Black and white, marched to the BNP HQ. The police attacked the march – as they did to the even-larger 50,000-strong demo in October 1993 – but could not break the solidarity on the day of the most radicalised section of youth in London, and the BNP HQ in Welling was eventually closed down.

Struggle today

Alongside these political developments, Black workers were starting to organise within the trade unions, and the question of Black representation was being discussed. The TUC established a Race Relations Committee in the 1980s and by 1993 held its first Black Workers’ Conference.

However, in the wake of the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985, compounded by the consequences of the collapse of the Stalinist states in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe from 1989 onwards, the trade union and Labour leaders moved away from struggle. There was an attack on the ideas of socialism, and conciliation and compromise with capitalism held sway for most of the 1990s and 2000s. A layer of Black activists became bureaucratised and drawn into ‘police their communities’.

Both New Labour and the Tories have cynically used immigration controls and asylum seekers in a continuation of ‘divide and rule’ policies – both to promote cuts and austerity and as a diversion from them. There have been many new controls since the 1981 Immigration Act, which completely revoked the right of a member of the British former ‘colonies’ to live in the UK. The most recent legislation, along with the destruction of boarding cards for those that travelled and settled in the UK before 1971, led to the Windrush Scandal, where Black workers with the right to live and work in the UK were denied jobs and medical care, and some even lost their home.

The situation today is very different from that facing the Windrush generation or even those who became active in the 1990s and 2000s. Trade unions are once again being forced to organise action on the cost-of-living crisis. A new generation of trade union representatives are being recruited in many workplaces. While not perfect, the trade unions nearly all have policies opposing racism and racist immigration controls.

Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 general election manifesto, even with all its limitations, raised the awareness of many of a socialist alternative to capitalism. This had a dramatic impact on Black workers, with a greater percentage turning out to vote Labour than in previous elections. Black youth were inspired by Corbyn’s programme, as demonstrated when a group of UK rap artists initiated ‘Grime4Corbyn’ to mobilise the Black youth vote.

The response to the George Floyd murder in the US during the Covid pandemic lockdown in 2020, when demonstrations were effectively illegal, also shows that a new layer want to fight for their future. Black youth who had never taken part in any demo turned out with their own home-made slogans for ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests. Even though consciousness was mixed, a socialist message was well received amongst a significant layer. There will be a battle of ideas to end racism as more are drawn into struggle. But a core can be quickly won to the idea that a united struggle for a socialist society is the only way to end racism once and for all.