Tower Hamlets Unison strike 2020. Photo: Hugo Pierre
Tower Hamlets Unison strike 2020. Photo: Hugo Pierre

April Ashley, Unison NEC, Black members’ rep, personal capacity

Unison’s annual national Black members conference in January attracted hundreds of Black trade union activists to discuss campaigning and organising against racism in the workplace and in the community. It is the biggest gathering of Black trade unionists in the UK, with over 600 regularly attending.

The conference followed Unison’s 2023 ‘Year of Black Workers’ campaign which was “a renewed and focused approach to challenging racism in the workplace and improving the experiences of Black workers both in the workplace and wider society”. The 2024 conference sought to “secure the legacy”, with an anti-racist toolkit and anti-racist charter for public sector employers to sign up to.

Conference motions ranged from mental health and racism, to the history of Black women in the trade union movement, citing the likes of the heroic Jayaben Desai who led the Grunwick strike 1976-1977 for higher pay and trade union recognition.

The conference was set alight debating the use of the term ‘Black’ as a political expression. Whilst some young members called for the abandonment of the term ‘Black’ as alienating other communities, most delegates argued against this as a backward step for unifying the movement against racism.

‘An activist’s journey’ – fighting against racism and for socialism

The Socialist Party had a successful intervention in the conference led by Hugo Pierre, previously a Black members’ rep on the National Executive Committee (NEC), who was invited as a special guest speaker to the conference to talk about his activist’s journey.

Hugo’s speech highlighted the fight against racism, from early migrants into the UK – using his father as an example of supporting black workers against employers; to driving the racists and fascists off the streets in Tower Hamlets, led by the YRE (Youth Against Racism in Europe); to leading the Windrush campaign against the Tory ‘hostile environment’, by supporting Camden Unison member Michael Braithwaite, cruelly threatened with deportation like thousands of other Caribbean migrants.

His speech was punctuated with applause as he emphasised the need to organise in the workplace, and expressed confidence in Black workers who are leading the fight against racism. 

He declared he was a socialist, and he urged the importance of organising to change society – and again was confident that Black workers will be in the lead of the struggle to change society. A delegate said his speech was “brilliant” and was needed at the conference.