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Unofficial unionising: an interview with Wilf Sullivan

The former Trades Union Congress race equality officer reflects on decades of black workers’ organising within unions

3 minute read

Wilf Sullivan, former TUC Race Equality Officer

When I was 18 or 19, working in a factory in Kent, I joined the Transport and General Workers’ Union. I was always a bit ‘bolshy’. My supervisor didn’t like me and didn’t let me go to the toilet. I used to do things to sabotage the production line.

I moved to London and got involved in anti-racism struggles, joining the central committee of Rock Against Racism. As convener of the social services department in Islington, I organised a children’s home workers’ strike demanding better staffing ratios, making myself unpopular with the council.

In the late ’70s, I started working for NALGO (National and Local Government Officers Association) in Haringey, which had an active black members’ group. There were no official black members’ groups in unions then. We organised unofficially, both locally and nationally.

We campaigned around how the union structured its pay claims, which disadvantaged low-paid workers, especially black – including Caribbean, African, Asian, Cypriot and Chinese – workers. We got the union to have a flat rate element to their claims and negotiated with employers that there should be open recruitment. I became secretary of the NALGO Haringey branch, which had about 4,000 members in those days. Bernie Grant was the council leader – we argued all the time!

While Thatcher was terrible, we got more done because we were organised. I think over the neoliberal period race got depoliticised. Language changed from ‘antidiscrimination’ to ‘equal opportunities’. Divide and rule took place through funding the more conservative elements in communities and playing them off against one another, making it difficult to get people in the same bloody room.

How can you talk about work, if people haven’t got a place to live?

I grew up in a time when nobody distinguished between union and community organising. Union reps were running local library campaigns; unions campaigned for childcare, not just in the workplace but within the community, and around housing. How can you talk about work, if people haven’t got a place to live?

I became a black members’ officer for Unison before moving to the TUC in 2004. People say we’re always talking about the same issues – lack of access to work, lack of promotion, bullying in the workplace, lack of access to training. And I say, that’s because it’s structural.

Grunwick was the first black workers’ dispute that had the full backing of trade unions. There had been lots before but they weren’t officially supported – in some cases, the official union was downright hostile. People on the left sometimes think ‘it’s all about class, scrap this cultural politics – after the revolution, racism will disappear’.

Managerialism is the curse of the modern world. Whenever there’s a problem, everybody says we need a process – but processes are extremely good at individualising things. I used to criticise my colleagues in relation to policy also. The world runs on people, not policies. Where are ordinary people involved in discussions about improving their lives?

There’s a lot of debate in unions about the role of organisations like the IWGB (Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain). Like any institutions, unions feel threatened when organisations outside their ecosystem start popping up. If mainstream unions cannot meet the needs of the most vulnerable workers, it’s inevitable that people will do it themselves. But that’s what trade unionism should be about anyway.

Wilf Sullivan was speaking to Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya

This article first appeared in Issue #241, Pan-Africanism. Subscribe today to get your copy hot off the press!

Wilf Sullivan is the former TUC Race Equality Officer

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