Isai Priya, Socialist Party black and Asian group
Since 1987 in the UK, October has been Black History Month. It’s a month specifically to learn, share and celebrate the proud black history of Britain. For socialists, we focus on remembering the struggles of black, Asian and migrant workers, learning the lessons to fight for the rights of workers and youth today, and in the future.
The rich, proud history of black struggle in Britain goes back centuries. Even in the depths of the slave trade and imperialism, black workers played a key role in the struggle to abolish the slave trade and slavery itself. Confidence was drawn from the various rebellions and uprisings taking place in colonial countries, including the Black Jacobins of the Haitian revolution. Sons of Africa, which is seen as the first black political organisation in Britain, was formed in the mid-18th century and included two ex-slaves who arrived in London after purchasing their freedom. They spent the rest of their lives campaigning against slavery and speaking on tours around the country.
Black activists and workers also took part in the first real workers’ movement that emerged in 1836. William Cuffay, the son of a former slave, was a leading figure in the Chartist movement. He was involved in strikes for a shorter working day, for decent pay and working-class representatives in parliament. He was one of the leaders of the Chartist Convention, which organised a 25,000-strong demonstration in London in April 1848. A few months later, he was targeted by the state and sentenced to be transported to Tasmania for 21 years.
Despite many threats and attacks by the state, and state-fuelled racism, black and Asian workers have remained an anchor in the working-class fightback. During the various struggles, the most conscious black workers turned to the trade unions to link the struggle against racism and for better pay and conditions with the organised workers’ movement. They saw the power and strength of workers in action.
The anti-racist movement, including the tremendous civil rights movement of the 1950s, 60s and early 70s, impacted black and Asian people across the world and gave them the confidence to fight back. In Britain, that period saw a wave of protests and strikes.
The 1963 Bristol bus boycott was a big turning point. Led by the West Indian Development Council, the boycott lasted for four months until the company backed down and overturned the colour bar. It shows the power of a united struggle to bring down racist measures and to pave the way for change. The strength of the boycott pushed the trade unions to take the anti-racist struggle forward. It also led to the 1965 and 1968 Race Relations Acts, which banned employers from discriminating against a person because of the colour of their skin.
Numerous black and Asian trade unionists inspired a whole generation and leave a lasting impact. Jayaben Desai, a leader of the Grunwick dispute, is such an individual. In 1976, almost 200 mainly female Asian workers went on a strike against management bullying and for union recognition. They collectively fought and got backing from the trade union movement. One of their strike rallies was attended by over 20,000, and the strike got national significance.
Black and Asian workers had to build mass action in their workplaces to put massive pressure on the trade union leaders to organise further action. This wasn’t done automatically; today workers still have to organise to put pressure on trade union leaders to take action.
In the anti-racist struggle there have been many positive changes in the trade unions, but we still have a long way to go.
The lives of black and Asian trade unionists and socialists, and the history of black struggle, should be discussed. But this should be done throughout the year, not just in October. The lessons are essential for the struggles today, to build a mass movement to smash racism.
2020 was a year that will not be forgotten by many. It was a year where working-class and young people saw the crisis of capitalism and the failure of the Tory government to protect us. 2020 was also a year that shone a light on the class and race inequality that exists within this exploitative, divisive system. Black and Asian people have been affected disproportionately by the pandemic, cuts to services and job losses. Black young people are 19 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police and three times more likely to be unemployed.
2020 also gave a glimpse of the possibility of a mass movement to smash racism and capitalism. The Black Lives Matter movement has shown that police harassment and racism are not going to be tolerated. We are also seeing black, Asian and migrant workers at the forefront of the many disputes and strikes that are taking place against ‘fire and rehire’ and trade union victimisation. As history shows, only a united mass struggle against this capitalist system can end discrimination and inequality, and win rights for the whole working class.