Race, Racism and Resistance in Trade Union Education and Practice

by Ian Manborde

The lessons of the past can help us realise radically different approaches to trade union education and the renewal of labour movements globally.

First published: 15 May, 2015 | Category: Constitution, Labour movement, Racism

Satnam Virdee’s Racism, Class and the Racialised Outsider offers important insights on the place and presence of ‘racialised outsiders’ in English working class history, and helps locate the shifting tensions and relationships between race and class.  But its greatest significance lies in its forceful argument that the only valid historical account of this class is one where it is seen as heterogeneous and multi-ethnic from the outset.

Virdee’s account though should not be simply catalogued in the history, politics or ethnic studies aisles of academic libraries, since it has vitally important lessons for those of us engaged in radical labour and trade union studies education, and for mainstream trade union pedagogic practice also.  This follows both Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and Brazilian educationalist Paolo Freire's conceptions of adult education.  Trade union education, Freire believe, should be a means to achieving ‘conscientization’ (the developing of consciousness, but consciousness with the power to transform reality),[1] whilst Gramsci saw informal education within workplace and community settings as generating ideas and understanding to counter prevailing hegemonic practices.  This sounds wooly I know, but too little mainstream trade union education locates issues of race, class and gender as a feature of people’s everyday struggles.  Whilst these may manifest themselves in the workplace, they are just as likely to intersect in myriad form in both mundane and complex ways throughout all spheres of social activity.  Racism, Class and the Racialised Outsider not only underlines this, but is itself a route to an engaged, relevant pedagogy – albeit one which much also contend with profound concerns about the future of trade unionism itself.

Shifting our Focus Outward and Upward

In Teachers and Leaders[2] Richard Lewis dissects the classic British antagonism at the heart of trade union education in the context of workers’/trade unions’ economic position in society: is this to be an education conditioned by the confines of capitalism, or one that seeks to propel a revolutionary class beyond it? Lewis and others acknowledge that the dominant form of trade union education that grew from this tension, leaving aside the revolutionary ambitions of the Plebs League, became predisposed to the former, and never adequately went on to make sense of class as a means to analyse workplace relations.[3]  This arguably reflected the prevailing 20th century consensus of trade union form and function, but in any case, a narrower, much more instrumental form of education emerged, centred specifically on the workplace and the terms and conditions of workers therein. 

There was a boost in adult and union learning initiatives under New Labour,[4] and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) is to be commended for maintaining the availability of a core education programme from 2010 onwards, delivering educational opportunities to approximately 52,000 union representatives at the last count.[5]  But the principal aim of trade union education in the UK and European remains about making sense of work and the role of trade unions in this context.  A quick glance at the educational offer of the European Trade Union Institute (the research and education arm of the European TUC) is a case in point.

Many writers and academics have sought to enliven this narrow historical disposition, arguing that any hope of trade union renewal – within which education must play a part – rests first on an outward vision; that of the ‘whole worker’ in a capitalist economy (see Jane Holgate’s precise rendering of this notion within this series).  In addition, we must look ‘upward’ to political and social changes impinging on work and workers from a global perspective, and specifically in the context of a neo-liberal globalisation.[6]

In this short article, I examine the pedagogical implications of Virdee’s book, arguing that it illustrates both the critical importance of trade union education as a means of building workers’ solidarity from both within the workplace and without, and that trade union renewal strategies must more consciously reflect and repeat the ways in which differing groups of workers have historically built common platforms of solidarity as a means to counter oppression.

Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider as Pedagogical Practice

I should state openly that I approach this principally as an adult educator and from the perspective of critical reflexive practice.  As a black trade unionist, an established teacher of international labour and trade union studies at Ruskin College, Oxford, and a former student (1989-1991) of this institution for adult/workers’ education, I came to Ruskin via the ‘classic’ path of activism both in the Labour Party and trade union movement.  My own activist journey is reflected particularly in Chapter 8 (Municipal Anti-Racism and Black Self-Organization) of Virdee's book.  My parents lives (working class Jamaican migrants to Britain in the early 1960s) and that of brothers, sisters and a wider familial network are diffused across most of the other chapters.  This reflects the complex personal histories characteristic of the descendants of a relatively new Caribbean community, forged from colonialism and the brutal experience of Indian indentured labourers transported across the globe from the mid 19th century onwards after the abolition of slavery.[7]

I feel it important to add this personal perspective, as others in this series have, since I concur with Virdee that accounts of English working class history – some even from within the labour movement – suffer from a ‘whitewashing’, and an inattention to of the effects of race, racism and racial discourse.  For this reason, the classic texts of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies[8] by Paul Gilroy,[9] Ron Ramdin[10] and others are an essential resources for those seeking teaching materials for trade unionists with a much more conscious appreciation of the dynamics of race.

Second, my own identity is indicative of the need for Virdee’s much more explicit and refined analysis of the intersection of race and class.  In particular, I would argue that his approach is vital for trade union learners in understanding and appreciating that (a) we still have much to learn from the historical struggles of black workers as part of the working class in ‘challenging the state in the interests of class’[11] and (b) there remains powerful, legitimate ambitions for self-organisation with the labour movement.

In both practical and specific terms, I’d like to draw out three, basic ways in which Virdee's insight might improve pedagogical approaches to trade union education from the perspective of race, and combine the outward and upward pressures to support trade union renewal strategies.

(1) Intersectionality: As forcefully and coherently argued by Sian Moore in this series, the challenge of trade union education is to ensure that trade union learners can comprehend and apply analyses of intersectionality as a means to both comprehend of multiple forms of oppression experienced by particular groups of workers, and to retain the political argument for self-organisation – a focus on conscientization is critical here as a bedrock on early educational experiences.  The twin perspectives of politics and history are important, and accounts of labour movement history – for example the 1976-77 industrial action of the Grunwick dispute – have multiple benefits.  The example of Grunwick, analysed through the concept of intersectionality, not only enables a fuller appreciation of the factors precipitating the strike, but also challenges learners to better appreciate the prospects for trade union renewal in a context where the majority of trade union members are women, where non-UK born workers are more likely than those born in the UK to be a trade union member, and those who stand to gain most from the ‘trade union premium’ are young women workers.[12]  In this context, the argument for self-organisation within trade union structures secures a greater degree of legitimacy as a means to ensuring not only the relevancy of policy and organisation for a diverse groups of workers, but also a greater likelihood that they will engage and participate in the life of the union.

(2) Leavening Agents & Missing Voices: A central feature of Virdee’s approach is to foreground the presence of racialized activists and their efforts to build multi-ethnic class solidarity.  For Virdee, these activists are ‘leavening agents’; a key ingredient in developing a common sense across the wider working class of state oppression in a capitalist economy.  For Virdee, these accounts are the ‘missing voices’ in an often historically ‘colour-blind’ approach to trade union organising.  The challenge to trade union education in this context is, I would contend, two-fold, but interlinked.  First, it is to recognise that for too many unorganised, marginalised workers, trade union membership is out of reach, and trade unions are unrepresentative of marginalised groups in terms of their composition and leadership[13].  Second, as a distinct feature of renewal strategy, and particularly within education around organising, there is a need to identify a new wave of leavening agents from outside of the trade union movement.  The recent experience of the GMB and UNITE Community within the E15 campaign for social housing is a good example of this.  I would recommend reading Virdee and Wrench’s Race, Poor Work and Trade Unions,[14] and Vanessa Tait’s Poor workers' unions: Rebuilding labor from below,[15] for a sense that this type of work is not new; we do not have to reinvent the wheel, we just need to bring these approaches back into education and practice.  Such re-reading, discussion and analysis should be seen as an integral feature of the trade unionist experience, but should also take place in more informal fora beyond the confines of formal trade union education.  Whilst the existing trades council structures offer a useful vehicle to host such educational activity, it is important that organisations and venues not distinct to the labour movement take priority.  There are many positive examples of educational resources being provided from a social justice perspective and modelled to facilitate informal learning activity, and many models for such approaches when we look broadly at the labour movements and allied social movements internationally.

(3) What are unions for? A central weakness of mainstream trade union education is its overly economistic, workplace-oriented, conceptualisation of the role of trade unions, and as a result the view that education is for workplace ‘representatives’ rather than ‘activists’ engaged in broader social struggles.  The privileging of this form of status quo is, I argue, an instrumental aspect of trade union decline.  Whilst Virdee does not discuss trade union education per se, he does help us understand how workplace and society are constantly changing as features of the globalising nature of the capital.  The perpetual rise of forms of precarious work is but one way in which the traditional structure, culture and logic of many trade union organisational forms have become ineffective.  Such trends represent an existential challenge to trade unions, but there are many positive examples to draw upon which can help reframe and remodel educational approaches in this context.  As referenced earlier, Jane McAlevey’s ‘whole worker’[16] approach is a central starting point to in developing a greater appreciation of intersectionality and the need to work with those outside of the formal labour movements.  I would go further though and suggest that trade union education should be modelled on the ‘whole trade unionist’.  This would examine, for example, worker’ social and familial network and the different social, cultural and economic influences on their lives and explore how workers could best be mobilised through existing movements and groups in alliance with organised labour.  For Bleakney and Morrill,[17] this is about a conscious appreciation of how movements can and should be engaged in processes of knowledge production which in Freirian terms reject the ‘banking’ form of education and sees education, rightly, as means of re-distributing power within unions, and particularly to those at the ‘frontline’, and most capable of realising the change required for trade union renewal.

There is still, I would contend, power in a union.  What Virdee reminds us of though, is that in moving forward, we must first look back, and, that if we are to reassert union power, we have to reimagine the purpose and place of trade unions in workers’ lives.

Ian Manborde is Programme Co-ordinator of the MA in international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS) at Ruskin College in Oxford.  He is a member of the Critical Labour Studies (CLS) collective and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists UK (CBTU).

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



[1] Freire, P. (1972) Cultural Action for Freedom. Harmondsworth: Penguin

[2] Lewis, R. (1993) Leaders and Teachers: Adult Education and the Challenge of Labour in South Wales, 1906-1940. Cardiff. University of Wales Press

[3] Rose, J. (2010) The intellectual life of the British working classes. New York. Yale University Press

[4] Stuart, M., Cutter, J., Cook, H. and Winterton, J. (2010) Evaluation of the Union Learning Fund rounds 8-11 and Unionlearn: Final report. Leeds. CERIC

[5] Gowan, D. (2014) Still making a difference: The continuing impact of trade union education on Britain’s workplaces. London. TUC Unionlearn

[6] Novelli, M. and Ferus-Comelo, A. (2009) Globalisation, knowledge and labour: Education for solidarity within spaces of resistance. Basingstoke. Routledge.

[7] Emmer, P. (ed) (1986) Colonialism and migration: Indentured labour before and after slavery. Dordrecht. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers

[8] Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (1982) The empire strikes back: Race and racism in 70’s Britain. Abingdon. Routledge

[9] Gilroy, P. (2002) There aint no black in the union jack: The cultural politics of race and nation. Abingdon. Routledge

[10] Ramdin, R. (1987) The making of the black working class in Britain. London. Avebury

[11] Gilroy, P. (2002) There aint no black in the union jack: The cultural politics of race and nation. Abingdon. Routledge

[12] BIS (2014) Trade union membership 2013. London. BIS

[13] Perrett, R. and Lucio, M. (2006) Trade Unions and BME workers in Yorkshire and the Humber. Bradford. Bradford University School of Management

[14] Wrench, J. and Virdee, S. (1995) Race, poor work and trade unions. Warwick. Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, University of Warwick

[15] Tait, V. (2004) Poor workers’ unions: Rebuilding labor from below. Boston. South End Press

[16] McAlevey, J. (2014) Raising expectations (and raising hell): My decade fighting for the labor movement. London. Verso

[17] Bleakney, D. and Morrill, M. (2010) Worker education and social movement knowledge production: Practical lessons and tensions in Choudry, A. and Kapoor, D. Learning from the ground up: Global perspectives on social movements and knowledge production. New York. Palgrave.

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