Labour Research October 2012


BME leadership: how are UK unions faring?

What are unions doing to encourage BME members to participate in the life of the union and to move up the union ranks?

There are currently no black or minority ethnic officials in the driving seat of a UK trade union. This is despite union initiatives to encourage more of their black and minority ethnic (BME) members to take on union positions, with the aim both of increasing BME participation generally, and, ultimately increasing representation at the top of trade unions in future years, a Labour Research survey has found.

Twenty-nine TUC-affiliated trade unions, accounting for over 90% of total TUC membership took part in the survey, including nine out of the 10 largest unions.

When Labour Research published its last survey of BME representation in September 2009, Colin Moses headed up the now 32,000-strong prison officers’ POA union as its national chair and was then the only BME trade union leader.

Three years on, our latest survey shows no BME officials at the helm of their unions. However, a handful currently occupy the number two position of deputy general secretary. Patrick Roach is deputy general secretary at the teachers’ NASUWT union, Britain’s seventh largest union with nearly 300,000 members. Leslie Manasseh is one of three deputy general secretaries at the 120,000-strong science and engineering specialists’ union Prospect.

And the Welsh teachers’ union UCAC with 4,500 members also has a BME deputy general secretary in Dilwyn Roberts-Young. In addition, at the next rung down from deputy general secretary in the country’s second largest union, the 1.3 million-strong public services union UNISON, sits Roger McKenzie, one of six assistant general secretaries.

Full-time national negotiating officials

In all, 10 of the 23 unions (43%) that provided this information reported that at least one of their full-time national negotiating officials (excluding race equality officers) is a BME official.

This is a larger proportion than in 2009 when 12 of the 32 (38%) unions taking part in the survey that could provide figures reported that they had at least one BME official among their national negotiator ranks.

One union pointed out that key to developing a cadre of black leadership is to start by looking to, and developing, the grassroots BME membership. Janice Turner, national equalities officer for the BECTU broadcasting and entertainment union, told Labour Research: “The union believes that increasing diversity within its full-time staff and on its committees begins by increasing BME membership.

“Full-time staff are almost uniformly people who began as lay activists who became more and more deeply involved in union work until eventually they changed careers to become a full-time official.” She added this meant that the union’s strategy therefore, has been “to improve its own equality monitoring in order to better measure its progress, to recruit more BME members, and to assist and encourage them to play a greater role in the union”.

In total, 19 unions in the survey were able to provide full or partial data or estimates on the proportion of their members who come from BME communities. In addition, the POA reported that it is currently surveying its members, while the small 2,500 strong National Association of Stable Staff (NASS) reported that, as a result of a motion agreed at its June 2012 AGM, it will be monitoring the ethnicity of its members in the future.

Among other things, collecting this information plays an important role in helping unions achieve proportionality in terms of reflecting their BME membership throughout their structures.

Several unions in the survey were able to demonstrate that they are achieving at least proportionality among their senior ranks compared with their BME membership.

Fourteen percent of the 117,500-strong UCU university and college lecturers’ union full-time national negotiating officials are from BME communities, compared with 6% of its membership.

At the 278,500-strong public and commercial services union PCS, the figure is 10% compared with just under 7% of the total membership; the NASUWT has 4.5% of full-time national negotiators compared with around 2% of its members; and in the 18,000-strong senior civil servants’ union FDA, 10% of full-time national negotiators are from BME backgrounds compared with 5% of its members.

BME participation and representation

Union (in order of size) Membership1 BME membership % BME membership of NEC % Reserved seats on NEC
UNITE 1,559,802 4.8% 10.7%
UNISON 1,317,500 14%2 11%
GMB 620,000 not known 11%
Usdaw 421,061 9-11%3 0% X
PCS 278,510 6.8% 10% X
NASUWT 293,855 2% 2% X
CWU 205,000 8%3 0% X
ATL 160,000 not known 2% X
UCU 117,476 6.3% 6%
Prospect 120,000 2%4 9% X
RMT 79,093 5.7% 0% X
FBU 42,599 2.8% 0% X
Equity 36,890 not known 4.3%
POA 32,000 not known 0% X
MU 30,000 not known 0% X
Accord 26,895 8.2% 0% X
TSSA 23,349 12%3 0% X
NUJ 34,051 8.8% 6.9%
BECTU 24,266 7.6%5 12.5% X
FDA 17,948 5.4% 0% X
Nautilus 16,480 1.1%5 0% X
NGSU 11,750 7%5 8% X
Unity 4,250 not known 0% X
UCAC 4,500 not known 0% X
NASS 2,531 not known 0% 6
NACO 1,986 3%2 6%2 X
YISA 1,867 not known not applicable X
SURGE 1,563 27% 16% X
WGGB 1,980 not known 5.5% X

1 Figures supplied by unions for this survey

2 Approximately

3 Estimate

4 5% in former Connect union

5 Based on partial figures as some members have not specified their ethnicity

6 Seat currently unfilled

Regional officials

At regional level, the information unions were able to provide is much patchier, with just six unions confirming that they have BME full-time regional officials. In addition, the largest union, the 1.5 million-member general Unite union, reported that it is currently in the process of carrying out an audit.

Those that could show that they are achieving proportionality at regional level include the 34,000-strong journalists’ NUJ union, which reported that just over 14% of its regional negotiating officials are from BME communities compared with around 9% of its members; and the 27,000-strong finance union Accord, which gave a figure of 10% for BME regional negotiating officers compared with a membership figure of 8%. The 23,000-plus TSSA white collar transport union reported a figure of 10% of its regional negotiating officials compared with an estimated BME membership of around 12%.

UNISON says that one of its 12 regional secretaries is a BME official — West Midlands regional secretary Ravi Subramanian — together with 26 out of 227 of its regional officers.

This means that around 11% of its full-time regional officials are from BME communities compared with an estimated BME membership of around 14%. For the 421,000-strong shopworkers’ union Usdaw, the figure is just over 3% compared with an estimated BME membership of between 9% and 11%. This figure is based on monitoring the ethnicity of union activists attending national and regional conferences and events, and attending union training courses and events.

At the 160,000-strong teaching union ATL, 4% of regional officials are BME, although it does not have an ethnic breakdown of its membership.

Senior lay officers

In addition to collecting information about their paid senior union officials, Labour Research also asked unions about their most senior lay officers — those who sit on union national executive committees (NECs). The highest proportion of BME NEC members was reported by one of the smallest unions in the survey — the finance union SURGE which has just over 1,500 members. The union reported that 16% of its NEC members are from BME communities, compared with 27% of its total membership.

Broadcasting and entertainment industry union BECTU (24,000 members) reports that 12.5% (two out of 16) of its NEC members are from BME communities. The three largest unions, Unite, UNISON and the GMB, all report a figure of around 11%.

At PCS, 10% of NEC members are from BME communities, and at Prospect the figure is 9% compared with a membership of 2%. (The membership figure at the former telecoms union Connect is 5% — Connect has merged with Prospect but the two unions have not yet integrated their membership systems.)

And while there are no BME members on the FDA’s NEC, 14% of NEC members in Managers in Partnership (MiP), a joint partnership between the FDA and UNISON to represent senior managers in the NHS, are from BME backgrounds.

UNISON also reported that it elected its first black president in 2011-12. Eleanor Smith, a theatre nurse from Birmingham, was the first black woman to hold the highest position a lay member can hold in the union.

Only seven unions reported that they have reserved BME seats on their NECs compared with 12 in the 2009 survey. The TUC’s Wilf Sullivan pointed out that this smaller number is partly down to union mergers over the years. The unions were Unite, the GMB, UNISON, the UCU, BECTU and the small NASS which has one (currently unfilled) reserved seat.UNISON introduced its reserved seats for black members in 1998. The union’s national equalities secretary Gloria Mills told Labour Research that this has had “an important impact in raising the profile, participation and visibility of black members in the union”.

She added that more importantly, “it has transformed the union’s agenda” — with race equality issues moving higher up the bargaining agenda”.

Union delegations

The survey also looked at the proportion of BME members in union delegations to last year’s TUC Congress.

It should be noted that with unions, like many other organisations, feeling the pinch under the prevailing economic circumstances, the 2011 Congress was smaller than in previous years to save money. There were only just under 300 delegates compared with 645 in 2010, which may have influenced the number of BME delegates compared with previous years.

A quarter of the PCS and POA delegations were BME members; for UNISON’s delegation the proportion was 21%; the GMB 20%; the RMT rail union 14%; 12.5% for the UCU and Prospect; one delegate out of 11 (9%) for the CWU; and one out of 12 (8%) for the NASUWT. Usdaw supplied a figure for the 2012 Congress — an estimated 15.8% — and BECTU gave its 2010 figure which was 20%.

In total, 11 unions had BME members in their 2011 delegations. (A number of the smaller unions in the survey do not send a delegation.)

Encouraging greater BME participitation

Unions have undertaken a range of measures to encourage BME members’ participation. There is the example of BECTU, the NUJ, the 30,000-strong MU musicians’ union and the Equity actors’ union which has 37,000 members, who are all members of the FEU Federation of Entertainment Unions. This is a body representing workers in the publishing and entertainment industries.

These unions highlighted the importance of FEU training, Changing the face of your union, organised and delivered by Wilf Sullivan, as influential in increasing BME participation in their unions. Equity reported that a number of participants went on to stand for, and get elected to, positions in the union.

One NUJ member who attended is now a member of the union’s Black Members Council and also attended the TUC Black Workers’ Conference. And BECTU said that the training had given a number of BME members greater confidence in public speaking, and that they were now more involved in the union.

Unite organises black and ethnic minority (BAEM) national and regional conferences, among a wide range of events aimed at its BAEM membership. It also set up a Unite Black Women’s Network in 2011, and ran weekend events and visited workplaces with high numbers of BAEM members to try to increase their involvement in the union. In addition, the union ran leadership training for BAEM members in 2012.

“Newer members have taken part in events, along with members who have never been active in the union who are now taking part for the first time,” Unite national equalities officer Collette Cork-Hurst said. “As a result of these positive action measures, we expect to see more BAEM members becoming involved in our union structures, following elections for committee places this month.”

The NASUWT said its measures had helped increase BME membership by over 5,463 since the TUC carried out its Equality Audit in 2011. These include producing recruitment materials for BME teachers and producing research into issues of concern to BME members.

There are also more BME members in all union positions. For example, in 2011, there were 130 BME school reps (workplace reps), 32 BME local association (branch) officers and 25 BME equality officers, compared with 70, seven and 11 respectively in 2007.

Unions are confident that these measures to encourage participation among their BME members at all levels will pay off in future years and result in more BME members gaining top positions in unions — both as paid officials and lay representatives.

Unions have ‘become stuck’

TUC race policy officer Wilf Sullivan says that while unions have made a lot of progress in encouraging BME participation, in recent years they have “become stuck”, although a number of smaller unions are currently improving their equality structures.

“There is a need for trade unions to look at different ways of encouraging people to get involved and widen the opportunities for black activists,” said Sullivan.

It’s not enough to assume that self-organised structures alone will lead to participation in formal trade union structures. They must identify people, train them and provide opportunities for them to participate.

“It’s very important that in these hard times, unions don’t forget about this. With everything else that is going on, there is a danger that equality issues slip down the agenda. “

Sullivan pointed out: “But the workforce is changing, there is an increasing proportion of BME workers, and they represent the future growth of trade unions.”

And, he said: “If we want to get those people involved, we really do have to look a lot more like them.”