Intersectionality, Self-Organisation and Workers’ Resistance

by Sian Moore

The past decade has seen a focus on intersectionality as a way of capturing how people experience multiple oppressions, but both intersectionality and self-organisation have the capacity to be co-opted by the neoliberal project. Without knowledge of the historic tensions between race, class, and gender, we cannot determine the destiny of workers’ resistance.

First published: 31 December, 2014 | Category: Class, Gender equality, Labour movement, Racism, Vision/Strategy

Satnam Virdee's Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider is a re-reading of the history of the English working class through the lens of race. This extremely readable book demonstrates that the English working class was, from the moment of its inception, a heterogeneous, multi-ethnic formation. The shifting relationship between class and race is the key tenet of Virdee’s book, which illustrates how ‘race was constituitive in the making of the working class in England across two centuries’[1].

The strength of the book is the way that it treats race as a social category - not a fixed social category, but one which changes over time. The book is a powerful exposition of the importance of black struggles ‘in challenging the state in the interests of class’[2] and inevitably reflects upon the role of self-organisation, provoking questions about the political and organisational relationship between race, gender and class in the current period of neoliberal austerity.

In the early industrial period, Virdee identifies a coexistence of solidarity and tension between different sections of the working class, including Irish and English workers. His arguments about race are also resonant for gender; similar tensions were evident between female and male workers and were to some extent accommodated within the household, but also by class-based values and movements. At the same time, in a period where social relations and ideas were in flux, many young women workers were attracted by the feminist ideas of Owenite Socialism, which unlike Chartism, with its strong class focus, also challenged traditional familial relationships. Yet despite being politically distinct, in terms of organisation at the local level Owenite Socialism and Chartism were not mutually exclusive[3], and Chartism, for Virdee, was able to transcend ‘the traditional boundaries of British nationalism’. 

Following the defeat of Chartism, Virdee describes how the English labour movement and the left were complicit in the production of racialized difference and the integration of the working class into the project of Empire and nationalism. However, there were two historical moments between 1848 and 1968 when the working class supressed or rejected racism. The first emerged amid the new unionism of the 1880s and 1890s, and here the catalyst was unemployed, unskilled and women workers and the successful strike of young women from the Bryant and May match factory. The second period was in the 1920s, when anti-racist and anti-imperialist opposition was led by the Communist Party of Great Britain – a multi-ethnic formation – and was marked by the battle of Cable Street in 1936 against the British Union of Fascists’ attempts to march through the East End of London. 

For Virdee, it was in the 1970s that the organized labour movement began to actively challenge racism, with an alignment between class struggle and struggles against exploitation by the black and Asian population. An anti-racist standpoint emerged in the trade union movement, notably in its support for the industrial action led by Asian women workers in the Grunwick dispute. Virdee argues that the legacy of black mobilisation was realised in the much colder climate of the 1980s with the adoption by public sector unions of the principle of black self-organisation.

The past decade has seen a focus on intersectionality as a way to conceptualise difference, capturing how people experience multiple oppressions, sometimes simultaneously and in ways which cannot be disentangled. Intersectionality emerged out of black feminist writing, in particular that of Kimberle Crenshawe[4], and Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider confirms the dynamic nature of this approach, because the relationship between race and class is fundamental.

Yet intersectionality is distinct from the single-strand focus and language of self-organisation. Theories of intersectionality have been associated with the move to embrace multiple discrimination and the integration of gender and race into a broader equality agenda within the framework set by European Union equalities and human rights legislation; this recognises discrimination on six strands – gender, racial and ethnic origin, disability, age, religion and sexual orientation.

Judith Squires asks how far there has been a move towards the institutionalisation of intersectionality throughout Europe through the unification of previously separate anti-discrimination legislation and policies directed at specific groups[5]; a more integrated approach to equality. This approach was confirmed by the establishment of single equality bodies to monitor discrimination: In the UK, multiple discrimination was included in the Labour Government’s 2010 Equality Bill (the secondary legislation was not enacted by the incoming Conservative-Liberal Democratic Coalition) and is characterised by Squires as consistent with the liberal model of equality. This model, based upon sameness or equal treatment – through legal solutions – is distinct from the recognition of difference characterised, politically, by self-organisation. For Squires the language of the Equality Bill ‘echoes popular perceptions of equality, which focus on the idea of equal opportunities, or protection from discrimination’, ‘a fairness approach to equality … structurally antithetical to developing a nuanced recognition of intersectionality’[6].

Union support for the Equality Bill included demands for statutory rights for a new type of union representative, the trade union Equality Rep (ER), to promote ‘fairness’ and equality in the workplace. Whilst the Labour Government did not promise statutory recognition for the role it did provide resources for the training of Equality Reps, and the TUC reported in 2014 that half of unions have provision in their rulebooks for ERs[7]. This role may imply a more inclusive approach to equality – reflecting the prevailing legislative and policy trends – than the single-strand focus of self-organisation. Self-organisation represents a radical paradigm, reflected in politically conscious and antagonistic discourses based on social divisions such as gender and race. Yet, interviews with ERs revealed that many see their role in terms of a more abstract notion of equality as ‘fairness’, suggesting a return to liberal, sameness or equal treatment conceptions of equality.

There was, however, a generational perspective with older ERs much more likely to adopt the language of self-organisation and new ERs more likely to use the language of fairness[8]]. Again this suggests the legacy of black struggle and self-organisation. For Daniels and McIlroy, since the function of ERs does not involve collective bargaining and joint regulation ‘the restricted nature of the roles they offer cannot be minimised or downplayed’[9]. Thus the emergence of ERs may reflect a model of equality based upon the individualised rather than collective assertion of rights. At the same time it has been suggested that whilst self-organisation has successfully challenged internal union structures it has had limited impact at the level of the workplace[10] and may have become institutionalised itself. Significantly research suggests that at the level of the workplace Equality Reps and self-organisation co-exist, Equality Reps may become involved in  union self-organised groups and thus the Equality Rep model may reinvigorate self-organisation. Similarly there is a tendancy to counterpose collective and individual representation in the workplace, when in reality there is a much more dynamic relationship between the two.

So is intersectionality necessarily a liberal model? Kantola and Nousiainen[11] distinguish between multiple discrimination and intersectionality. In the former, discrimination on one ground adds to discrimination on another (additive). In the latter, discrimination on different grounds interact simultaneously and are inseparable. They argue that political and legal constructions of intersectionality as multiple discrimination in Europe ‘privilege anti-discrimination over wider measures to further equality thus ‘narrowing down the debate’ rather than supporting positive proactive policies. They suggest the problems of investing in legal and institutional reform. So the positive aspect of intersectionality is that it does convey the reality and experience of those facing multiple inequalities. Yet it becomes problematic when the focus is entirely on the location of difference or division rather than the causes – the processes and systems of domination, particularly divisions of labour by gender and race which lead to labour market segregation and exploitation. Intersectionality should be informed by ‘the conjuncture of social structures’ – the dynamic interaction of individual and institutional factors – and not the categories of identity which underpin ‘human rights discourse’ and anti-discrimination law and equality policies[12].  In line with this, Moore and Wright suggest that there are limitations on a liberal model confined to promoting equality in organisational structures when the public sector is subject to wider market forces’[13].

In previous work Virdee has noted that since the 1990s, research within the field of racism and ethnicity studies has tended to focus on the cultural at the expense of the economic; on the theory and politics of recognition and understanding difference rather than the theory and politics of inequality and redistribution[14]. Key questions about the way capitalism, in perpetuating and sustaining racialized class divisions, are no longer the focus of research with devastating consequences for political projects. Sustained accounts of racism and its articulation with class and the development of capitalism have become rare. Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider clearly challenges this trend and reasserts the political.

Similarly, with regard to gender, Nancy Fraser[15] has identified the incorporation of some strands of feminism into the neoliberal project - resonating with Virdee’s account of the mid-nineteenth century cross-class settlement and incorporation of sections of the working class into the project of Empire and nationalism. Claims for justice are couched in terms of claims for the recognition of identity and difference and there has been pressure to transform feminism into identity politics. There has been an overextension of the critique of culture with the dominance of cultural theory. Political economy is downplayed and  social-economic struggles subordinated to struggles for recognitionrather than a synthesis of redistribution and recognition. Fraser poses the celebration of women’s unprecedented entry into the labour market at global level (chiming with the ConDem triumph about record levels of female employment in the UK) and the two earner household, against the reality of depressed wages, decreased job security, declining living standards, rising hours and exacerbation of the double shift.  In the UK the proliferation of part-time work for women, increasingly on a zero hours basis, has done nothing to substantially narrow the gender pay gap or to promote equality at the top of the earnings bracket. Neoliberalism has recast part-time and flexible work for women as progressive and legitimised by feminism. Yet as Black Feminists point out, this is the co-option of white feminism – the residual position of Black workers in the labour market militates against co-option. Fraser argues for the reconnection of feminist critique to a critique of capitalism and one which valorises uncommodified activities including care work.

Gender and race are integral to the periodic restructuring of capitalism as it attempts to overcome the limits of its accumulation – the rise and fall of radical black politics and feminism are then linked to historical shifts in the character of capitalism. There is an ideological and political struggle, but as Virdee shows, one which is shaped by different stages of the capitalist world system and its systemic crisis and thus different configurations of class, race and gender. Virdee argues that moments of crisis (in British capitalism) may fracture the political consensus and win workers to alternative narratives – although this is not an inevitable process. Central to unlocking this potential is the existence of international socialist leadership within the working class and the book highlights the role played by ‘racialized outsiders’ of Irish (particularly James Connolly), Jewish, African, Caribbean and Asian descent in such leadership and the transmission of anti-racist ideas.

Virdee describes how the experiment in municipal anti-racism in radical Labour-run authorities opened up areas of non-manual local state employment to black and ethnic minority workers, which became the basis of black self-organisation and transformation in large parts of the British trade union movement. It is these developments that laid the basis for the current composition of union membership; in the UK women are 55 per cent of aggregate union membership[16], Black British workers are more likely to be union members than ‘all employees’ (29% compared to 26% in 2013) and this is particularly true for black women. This picture reflects the concentration of union membership in the public sector and is set against the backdrop of membership decline. The austerity project, in its destruction of the public sector through budget cuts and privatisation, represents a counter-mobilisation against the gains made through self-organisation. Disturbingly, this has already resulted in an increase in the gender pay gap in the public sector.

Both intersectionality and self-organisation have the capacity to be recast as liberal models of equality and to be co-opted by the neoliberal project. The question that arises, with regard to both, is what is the basis of organisation and social change – does it shift between different identities at different moments - and can they address injustice in the way that self-organisation as a politicised model mobilising conscious and specific social identities against the state has done? In the words of Misty in Roots,[17] without the knowledge of the history of the tension between class-based organisation and the self-organisation of Black people and women we cannot determine the destiny of workers’ resistance.

This article is part of our series, Race and Class in Britain.

Sian Moore is Professor of Work and Employment relations in the Business School at UWE, Bristol.



[1] Virdee, S. (2014). Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider. London: Palgrave McMillan. p. 8.

[2] Gilroy, P. (1982), The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain London: Hutchinson p. 304

[3] Moore, S. (2014) ‘Gender, the Labour Process and Women’s Mobilization in the Industrialization of the Bradford Worsted Industry, 1780-1845’ Historical Studies in Industrial Relations 35, 1-31.

[4] Crenshaw, K. (1989) Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 139-67.

[5] Squires, J. (2009) "Intersecting Inequalities", International Feminist Journal of Politics, 11(4): 496 - 512.

[6]   Op.cit. p. 506.

[7] TUC Equality Audit, 2014.

[8] Moore, S. and Wright, T. (2012) Shifting models of equality? Union Equality Reps in the public services’ Industrial Relations Journal (43, 5).

[9] Daniels, G. and McIlroy, J. (2009) Trade Unions in a Neoliberal World: British Trade Unions under New Labour (Oxford: Routledge), p.140.

[10] Munro, A. (2002) ‘A Feminist Trade Union Agenda? The Continued Significance of Class, Gender and Race’ Gender, Work and Organization 8(4):454 - 471.

[11] Kantola, J. and K. Nousiainen. (2009). "Institutionalizing Intersectionality in Europe." International Feminist Journal of Politics, Vol.11 No.4, 459-477.

[12] Op. Cit. p. 462.

[13] Moore and Wright, Op. Cit.

[14] Virdee, S. (2006) ‘”Race”, Employment and Social Change: a critique of current theoretical orthodoxies’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 29: 4: 605-628.

[15] Fraser, N. (2009) ‘Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History’. New Left Review, 56 March-April.

[16] BIS, 2014

[17] "The music of our heart is roots music, music which recalls history because without the knowledge of history you can’t determine your own destiny."

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