The leadership of the Unison union vowed to challenge racism and homophobia head-on at its annual conference in Brighton this week after the Orlando homophobic massacre and the killing of MP Jo Cox.
General secretary Dave Prentis said, “We have more in common than that which divides us.” He denounced the “dog-whistle finger jabbing” politics of the right in the European Union (EU) referendum campaign.
Unfortunately, he stopped short of denouncing the racism coming from both sides of the referendum debate. He urged Unison members to vote Remain today in the EU poll but said the union had to be “united against racism, united against hate”.
Prentis promised to challenge the bigots and racists in Ukip. He challenged Nigel Farage, “If you pour poison into our communities and set worker against worker we will take you on.”
Jo Cardwell, one of the elected delegates from the Unison women’s conference, moved a motion on women, the refugee crisis and trafficking. “We say refugees are welcome here,” she said.
“I'm proud our union was one of the first to sponsor the convoy to Calais. When you give aid to refugees, it's an act of solidarity and a political intervention against the racism surrounding the debate on immigration.
“We have to be clear this poisonous debate is coming from the top of society
“The Tories Immigration Bill proposes to reduce access to the NHS for migrant workers but if it weren't for migrant workers there would not be a national health service.”
Unison member and local government worker Sabera told Socialist Worker she was pleased to hear the leadership speaking out. She said, “Racism is everywhere and must be challenged. Sometimes it can be quite scary but going to meetings and being part of protests has given me a lot more confidence.”
At a Stand Up to Racism (SUtR) fringe event last night some 120 delegates packed a hall in one of Brighton's seafront hotels. It was a broad, representative meeting.
They heard Unison deputy general secretary Roger McKenzie argue that “black lives matter and refugee lives matter”. He said now was a time “to stand beside people under attack and organise to stop the attacks from happening”.
McKenzie added, “If we don't do it now then when the hell are we going to do it?”
Green Party leader Natalie Bennett also spoke, “Tackling racism and discrimination has to be at the centre of everything we do.” Bennett argued that we are living through a time of big change and “that change has to be driven by the Stand Up to Racism movement, the refugees welcome movement”.
SUtR national secretary Weyman Bennett argued not to let mainstream politicians off the hook after a “fascist terrorist killed Jo Cox”. He said, “If you want to understand who unleashed the monster of racism remember that it was David Cameron that talked of the failure of multiculturalism and swarms of migrants.
“Every time I'm asked by the media to comment on immigration I say, 'cuts'. When they try to divide us we have to join up the struggles. Solidarity runs deep on our side. If we organise it and fight, we can win.”
Sandwell Unison was one of the 18 branches to help organise the SUtR fringe and the Love Music Hate Racism gig that followed. Secretary Tony Barnsley told Socialist Worker, “I've been really pleased to see the Unison leadership stand up to racism and speak out – that's great.
“We have to do everything we can to fight back against racism but also link it to the fight against austerity. The Tories are using racism to divert the struggle against the cuts. Are our leaders prepared to lead the fight and also stand up to austerity?”
Addressing the conference this morning, Thursday, Jo Cardwell rejected Ukip’s racism and scapegoating of refugees and migrants. “Nigel Farage claims sexual violence follows immigration,” she said. “Sexism is not a foreign import and we will not allow women's rights to be used to ratchet up racism.
“I may have been born with same skin colour and in the same country as Farage, Cameron and May but I know where I stand, and it’s not with the British ruling class. Solidarity with refugees, they are our brothers and sisters and they are welcome here.”