Confronting racism at Lambeth council

Jocelyn Cruywagen is a black worker activist and Unison rep at Lambeth council. She spoke to The Clarion about the anti-racist struggle being waged by workers at the council.

In July last year, Lambeth Unison had a survey, with hundreds of responses. One of the key thing was that it BME workers felt they were more likely to be disciplined than their white colleagues. White workers are more likely to be promoted; black workers are seen as less capable, particularly of certain jobs. There is an influx of white people into managerial positions. Black workers said they don’t feel valued. A big thing, particular in housing, is flexible working – one person is told they can work flexibly, while another can’t, and black workers are less likely to be allowed. We have a hot desking policy but black workers find that they aren’t allowed to sit in certain places, which are effectively reserved for white managers. The panels interviewing people for jobs are predominantly white too and HR’s own figures show white people are significantly more likely to be appointed at interview. And there is the issue of restructuring impacting black workers more.

The survey was a big thing and since then we’ve tried to say to black workers in Unison, let’s try to do something about this. We demanded an external investigator to look into institutional racism in Lambeth. We had an open letter, focused on the issue of flexible working.

There was an article in the Guardian in October, and when it came out the chief executive was extremely defensive and denied that there was any institutional racism. That’s ridiculous. I think every major institution in this society can be racist, the question is how you deal with and tackle that. After the outcry, after we had 300 black staff at a meeting telling him he was wrong; he apologised, but that does not solve the problem!

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Akala speaking at Lambeth Unison’s 2018 Black History Month event

Race equality training is essential. The small amounts of training that the council does are not enough. It needs to be followed up in a sustained way. And this is particularly important because the people providing services to people do not necessarily reflect the BME communities they service, particularly when you are talking about the managers of services.

I look at the black workers I work with and know, and I think you should be the service manager, you should be the CEO, not these people they’ve brought in from outside as professional managers, who are almost all white. Workers don’t need sorting out; we need supporting to work together to tackle racism, inequalities and injustice.

What are your demands?

Three things we really want to see are, firstly, racial equality training for all workers, white and black, not just managers, and it needs to be serious and sustained. Secondly, we need consistent application of flexible working and progress for all black staff. And thirdly we want an external person, not a tool of management, to investigate and mandate action on all these problems. We don’t want a wordy report that can be ignored as has happened previously. We want someone to help us put our demands into action.

The signs are not encouraging. Already they have appointed an ‘independent’ person, but not the person we wanted. Then they pulled a ridiculous stunt with our council black workers’ forum, which meant we had a huge meeting with hundreds of workers but then they had a tiny, badly advertised meeting and they used that to elect their person as chair. They have blocked us from submitting a petition through the technicalities of employer-union formal channels. They drag their feet even on the most basic things, like letting us have a couple of hours off for one afternoon for our union Black History Month event. We got it in the end, but it was a struggle.

Often when they do introduce training, monitoring and so on, it seems like a matter of tickboxing, not anything serious.

We will keep fighting. What needs to be done is not gradual. In my home country we waited almost fifty years for Mandela to be released. That is not what we want here. At least in the end the regime there negotiated, which is more than you can say for Lambeth management!

There have been similar controversies a number of times over the years, and it’s depressing that they have not led to lessons being learned. In 2003, for instance, perhaps people should have known the council was going to brush the issues under the carpet. This time, we as the union have to really fight for our demands. We don’t need a long report, we need clear recommendations and action to put them in place. There is more than enough experience in Unison to hold the council accountable if we are confident in our demands.

To what extent is this an issue of racist attitudes among managers – and staff – and to what extent an issue of wider structures?

It is about individuals but I think there’s definitely an institutional problem – if the institution was anti-racist, pro-gender, pro-LGBT, pro-disability, pro-transgender, pro-Muslim, you would have a freer and more just working environment. People would feel I am a black woman and I feel confident and supported to, say, apply for job and get a promotion. We need a leadership which doesn’t want to know just about formal qualifications but is interested in our experience working with ethnic minorities. If you have institutions that promote freedom for people, freedom of development, freedom of discussion, then that creates an environment where different views and behaviours take form.

How is the union seen? Is it growing as a result of this fight?

This has certainly raised Unison’s profile, and yes we’ve taken the opportunity to recruit new members.

The branch has had a series of different campaigns around the issue of racism, for instance about Windrush, about Show Racism the Red Card, and we’ve been active in lots of different ways and very visible, leafleting outside the buildings. Then tackling issues like flexible working has brought a lot of members into the union too, for instance in housing.

We’ve tried to get the Black Workers Group more up and running in the last year, so that black workers can respond collectively. The more people are confident to talk and act about this racism, the better for everyone.

Lambeth Unison, I mean its committee, is disproportionately white, but it’s extremely progressive and pro-active on taking on racism. It’s the only union which is making a fuss about this consistently, and which I really think is doing things with the workers rather than just for the workers.

We need to take this opportunity to get black workers not just signed up but more involved. I say to people, your forefathers didn’t die so you could just sit in the pew. The more black workers step up, provide role models, talk about their experiences of being active, the more liberated they will feel and make others feel liberated too. Black workers need to be supported to put themselves forward for positions. You won’t get justice by sitting at your desk or in a pew. You have to take ownership. What are we going to do?

Lambeth council is overwhelmingly Labour. What role has that fact played? Have you had support from any Labour councillors?

Some Labour councillors, particularly black councillors, have made supportive noises, but the question is whether they’ll actually push this. They clearly feel under pressure not to make too much of a fuss. Labour councillors should be representing us as workers, particularly black workers. That means consulting us, or even just actually telling us, what they’re going to do! If they don’t do that, no wonder people feel so disillusioned with politics… We are pushing them to meet, discuss with us and act.

I must say, the fact they’ve appointed Andrew Travers as chief executive does not suggest they are in this mode. They must have had the wool pulled over their eyes. Look at the way he acted even in terms of allowing us to have our Black History Month event. I wouldn’t be surprised if he changes it to ‘Diversity Month!’ He is not serious about engaging with the union, of course he isn’t – this is the one who was chief executive in Barnet and pushed their privatisation agenda. Now in Lambeth he is bringing in more performance related stuff, and what do you think that is going to mean for black workers? Already it’s very clear that white workers who perform more poorly than black workers are getting promoted. It will make it worse.

This is supposed to be a Labour council!

Our Labour Link Officer has raised all these issues about racism and their treatment of the union and everything else in the Labour Party but as I understand it they have not replied.

The campaign has raised the issue of restructuring and how that has disproportionately affected, or maybe even targeted, black workers. The council would naturally point to the austerity being imposed on it by the government. What would your response be?

We need to look at the cuts and how they affect black people, who have already been disadvantaged for years, no for centuries. Now they are still getting white managers in from agencies and paying them huge salaries, the chief executive is on a huge salary and has had a nice pay rise, while our workforce which is 60pc BME is getting a real terms pay cut in addition to everything else about our quality of life. Even within the constraints, the council is not spending money in the right way. The senior management get the treat but us staff, particularly black staff, feel the cuts.

As long as there are cuts black people will be on the receiving end.

And then, when the council sometimes says it is fighting the cuts, I don’t believe them, not at all! If they were fighting they would support our union struggles and campaigns, actually support them, not just say a few words occasionally – and that’s it – when it’s a safe issue for them. If they had a strategy to fight, whatever it was, they would discuss it with us. They would not be using anti-union laws and exploiting every loophole and trick to stop us meeting and acting. They would give us time off to campaign instead of always pushing us not to.

It’s not impossible we will have a Labour government soon. What demands would you want to make on it?

Yesterday we were out campaigning on the streets for the Tommy Robinson demonstration on 9 November. One of my colleagues didn’t want to take a leaflet, he said we shouldn’t be political. I tell you this because I would say everything is political, the water you drink is political, the food you eat is political.

It breaks my heart to see what the destruction of services and communities has meant for black people. There are lots of things that need to be done immediately. For instance, education should be for all, not just a few people who can go up the ladder – look at the schools that are academised, we need to bring them back into our control. We need to restore our services, for families, early years support, youth services, in fact everything that councils used to provide.

It’s important to insist that the Labour Party’s principles and policies need to be carried out by Labour councils, which clearly isn’t the case at the moment. Labour is supposed to be about human beings, not about running society so the rich can get richer and tear down the poor. That needs to be reflected in the way councils are run. The way managers and even councillors talk and behave is more like Tories. They could make a start by no longer hiding away but getting out into workplaces and talking to black staff.

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