|Racism, Imperialism and the Labour Movement in Britain
Racism and discrimination are trade union issues. There is considerable evidence that black and ethnic minorities (BEM) face major barriers and prejudices socially, politically and economically. If trade unions are to make any progress in tackling racism, they need to understand the historical context of the racist ideology that permeates unconsciously throughout society and also analyse why institutional racism still exists.
This report will examine the key features of the ideology and practice of racism and also assess what the response of the labour movement has been in the past as well as look at current anti-racist strategy.
The contemporary section of this report is focussed on the Communication Workers Union and in particular the Post Office Ltd section of the union. The aim is to detail and develop an anti-racist strategy appropriate to the specific sector.
English voyageurs first landed on West African soil around the year 1550 and the English man’s first encounter with the natives of Africa left a strong and powerful impact as the “fairest skinned nations suddenly came face to face with one of the darkest peoples on earth”(Jordon 2000:35).
From the onset Englishmen set black Africans apart from themselves and interpreted their cultural differences as ‘unchristian’. It was these perceived ‘differences’ that eased the British conscience in later years, and helped them to justify to themselves the exploitation of the native Africans into the slave trade when they were then to see the natives as potential subjects “for a special kind of obedience and subordination” and they sought to “possess for themselves and their children one of the most bountiful dominions of the earth”(ibid:46).
The first known English slaving voyage was in 1562 and within 150 years, Britain became the dominant slave trading country (Scaruffi:internet). As British settlements in the Caribbean and North America grew, British slave traders increasingly supplied the British colonies with enslaved Africans to work in the plantations thus creating another protected market for British Industry (Abolition project:online). It was the profits from the triangular trade; Britain, Africa and the Americans; that was fundamental to imperialist Britain becoming the leading industrial power during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Demand for the tropical produces such as sugar and cotton grew and even by the mid 1750s “there were no companies that were not in some way connected with the triangular trade or direct colonial trade” (Williams:internet).
European expansion and imperial domination was arguably at the root of racial prejudice and the ideology of the ‘inferiority’ of black people. It was during these industrious years that racial doctrines and ideologies really began to develop and become the concept we understand in today’s society (Solomos & Back 1996:32-34).
Britain became reliant on the colonial empire and along with other European countries fought to conquer and take possession of new lands in order to grow this protected market. Along with the expansion of the Empire, came the growth of ‘aggressive nationalism’ (Davis 2003:4). It was this atmosphere of increased patriotism that racial chauvinism became a jingoistic tool in the ‘interest of the nation’ (ibid). However, politicians knew it was essential that there was support for imperialism from all sections of society, not least because there was a need for “soldiers to conquer new colonies and defend existing ones” (ibid:5). Promises of social reform from the profits of the Empire ensured many from the labour movement bought into the nationalistic loyalty (ibid).
Theories of Racism
‘Race’ became a pre-occupation of anatomists and anthropologists and their studies resulted in numerous theories and doctrines, many with a common aim of defining ‘race’ as being culturally, psychologically and physically different with “the dogma that one ethnic group is condemned by nature to congenital inferiority and another group is destined to congenital superiority”(Benedict cited in Bonilla- Silva 1997: 465). In order to justify the exploitation of the indigenous people of the Americas, Asia and Africa, several theories emerged throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
Scientific theories:- Men like Benjamin Kidd high-jacked Darwin’s theory of evolution and used the idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’ to validate ‘British racial superiority’ whilst others such as Galton and Pearson promoted the science of ‘eugenics’ and used ‘intellectual writings’ to convey the theory that a superior white race could be created by means of “selective breeding” to the benefit of humankind (Davis et al 2003:5). Eugenics became an established orthodoxy in an environment where the ruling middle classes were breeding less whilst what was perceived as the fast breeding and ‘feeble minded’ lower order were weak, deteriorating in health and increasingly difficult with demands for ‘rights’ (Stone 2001:397). The mixing of classes was believed to be undesirable and detrimental to the human race. However many eugenicists believed this was not the primary issue; instead they focused their attention on what they perceived as a bigger problem to society, that of race and argued it was “miscegenation and hybridity” that was central cause for concern (ibid). Galton propagated this perspective by arguing that the African race was ‘mentally inferior’ to Anglo-Saxons and used the racial hierarchy argument that put white Europeans at the top and the black African at the bottom (Jenson 2002:online). Other extreme forms of negative eugenics included advocating sterilisation to avoid the “terrible monstrosities produced by the intermarriage of the white man and the black…”(Rentoul cited in Stone 2001:399). Extremist Ludovici wrote books advocating infanticide, violence and sacrifice and argued that society should take responsibility via controlled legislation, to prevent “degenerates from being born”(Ludovici cited in Stone 2001:401). He was surprisingly not vilified for his views and although he took an extremist position, mainstream ideas on race dangerously flirted with some of the sentiment (ibid:402). This was to prove very dangerous in future years as Nazi racism took hold of Europe and followed this ideology with acts of mass genocide.
Radical theory - The link between the development of ‘racial ideas’ to that of the wider economic and social changes during imperialist expansion was evident as it depended on aggressive nationalism and the employment of a practice with racist overtones and an ideology based on white supremacy (Davis 2003:4). Writers such as J.A. Hobson wrote of his concerns as to how a nation’s consciousness had been caught up in a confidence trick of xenophobic jingoism that benefited only the elitist capitalists (Macintyre 1975:3). Ordinary workers received very little of the accumulated wealth and lived and worked in extreme poverty which meant the capitalist class turned to overseas markets for fresh outlets and financial reward (ibid). Hobson believed that this depressed the conditions of the workers in Britain and argued that raising the wages of the working class would in fact increase consumer demand (ibid:4). Fundamental to the Radicals opposition to imperialism was the belief that redistribution and reallocation of resources such as higher wages for workers, could address the deprivation of the poorer members in society and “eliminate the need to invest abroad” (ibid).
Marxist theory – Whilst Radicals used the term imperialism in the context of the relations between the nation state and its colonies, Marxist argue that imperialism is more general and incorporates competition and the fight of control over other capitalist economies in pursuit of greater surplus value. The capitalist’s objective of increased ‘surplus value’ leads to a constant demand for an increase in productivity as well as a need for a greater consumption demand. Marx himself wrote of “the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe.” (Marx & Engels 1977:39). Theorists such as Bauer and Hilferding therefore argue that imperialism is part of the economic and political system that is essential to capitalism as it strives to create greater surplus value and greater return (Macintyre 1975:5). Rosa Luxembourg concluded that capitalism is reliant on the “third market” to enable expanded reproduction and increased consumption (Macintyre 1975:6). However Lenin disagreed that the need to find markets was the main driver behind imperialism and argued that more importantly was the fact that super-profits could be made from capital invested in backward areas under “monopoly conditions” (ibid). He argued that imperialism “represented the search for better markets, cheaper materials, cheaper labour and more profitable investments in the search for profits” (ibid:10 & 11).
Lenin’s analyses can still be applied today as the capitalist classes compete with other nation states in an integrated international market (Robinson & Harris 2000:internet). The free movement of capital between countries has created a ‘powerful capitalist class and international corporate elite’(Robinson & Harris 2000:internet). Their fundamental interest lies in the pursuit of profit which is assisted by major political, economic and social agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank. Accompanying the rise of this dominant class has been the demise of state power and control whilst the debt in third world countries has grown along with further inequality, exploitation, poverty and deprivation (Sklair 2003:internet).
Marxist John Molyneux pointed out that it was the competitive nature of capitalism that brought the merchants, politicians and businessmen into conflict with the black and coloured people of the world and argues that it is a fundamental element of the structure of the capitalist economy that relies not only on competition between capitalists but also competition between workers and consequently a divided workforce (Molyneux 1987:30). This fact seemed to bypass the mainstream labour movement leadership who at times appeared either indifferent or aggressively pro-imperialist throughout the 19th and early 20th Century(Davis 2003:6). They showed little recognition or solidarity towards the black indigenous people but instead showed political unity to the promotion of the ‘national interest.’(Davis 2000:385). Although the British Socialist Party, Socialist Labour Party and Independent Labour Party all wrote about colonial exploitation and working-class internationalism, they did not see it as a prominent issue in the class struggle (Macintyre 1975:11). Meanwhile the TUC showed even less interest with no serious opposition to the enslavement of India or the partition of Africa and appeared to show uncritical acceptance of Britain’s imperial project (Davis 2000:386).
In the interwar years, the Labour movement began to show greater interest in colonial issues due to the emergence of national liberation movements and also their fear of a growing communist movement (ibid). However there were divisions of opinion with some in the labour movement supporting the retention of the colonies whilst others argued from an anti-imperialist stance. With no majority view the indecisive TUC preferred to focus their attention on establishing trade unionism in the colonies (Macintyre 1975:15).
The 1950’s saw mass migration of BEM groups from the economically depressed colonial countries such as West Indies, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (Phillips 2010:1681). Due to a labour shortage, expanding industrial Britain was eager to have access to a cheap workforce; however they were not warmly welcomed by the indigenous population. Many BEMs were subject to blatant hostility resulting in many being marginalized, forced to work in low paid unskilled jobs and live in concentrated, overcrowded areas of declining inner cities (Phillips 1997:1683). The legacy of the racist and prejudice imperialist ideology lived on providing the ruling class with a scapegoat for unemployment, housing shortages and many other social ills (Molyneux 1987:31). Racial prejudice and populace opinion prompted the Government to introduce the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act which because of the timing of the rule meant immigration controls affected black ethnic minorities more than white people (Davis et al 2003:12).
Trade unions were not immune to the prejudice thinking nor did they rationalise that a divided workforce was to the benefit of the employers. Instead many viewed the migrant labour force as a threat to the economic security of white organised labour and used “exclusionary practices motivated by racism” to restrict the employment of ethnic minority workers (Virdee 2000:551). These included a ‘5% quota system of black workers and the non application of the ‘last in, first out’ rule in order to ensure that if there were any job losses, it was the black worker that was made redundant first (ibid:552). If the trade unions took this position then it was not surprising that ordinary white workers viewed the ethnic minorities as ‘alien workers and influenced by the popular press and politicians such as Enoch Powell, saw them as a threat to ‘Britishness’ (ibid:551).
Today the British Nationalist Party (BNP) still nurtures the myth that migrant workers are responsible for the current economic crisis. Britain is trying to claw its way out of a worldwide recession and ordinary people are feeling the effects (Dey et al:2008). Despite the fact the recession has been created by greedy bankers and an unrestrained free market, the BNP blame immigration for the problems in the British economy and play on people’s vulnerability and fears to spread their racist ideology.
It needs to be noted that racism is not just aimed at ethnic minorities that are visibly different because of their skin colour. The BNP happily stoke the fire of discontent that is aimed at any workers that are not British. In a recent unofficial dispute in the Lindsey oil refinery, British workers protested that European workers were taking their jobs at a time of an economic recession and high unemployment. Despite European legislation supporting the free movement of workers, wild cat strikes broke out and quickly spread to secondary walkouts from oil refineries, power stations and nuclear plants across the UK (Barnard 2009:245). The GMB and UNITE repudiated the industrial action however local shop stewards were “actively involved” (ibid:248).
The dispute was more complex than it appeared on the surface however it was headlined by the media as ‘British jobs for British workers’ and that certainly was in the consciousness of the disgruntled workers.
Fascist groups such as the BNP and the English Defence League attempt to propagate divisions between ordinary people whilst the Government migration policies ‘institutionalises’ racism even further with an unfair points system and a policy that permits the UK Border Agency to raid workplaces; an invasive course of action that reinforces the concept that all migrant workers need to be viewed with suspicion and monitored to make sure they are legal workers (TUC 2010:6).
The contemporary Labour movement
In 1981, the TUC introduced a ‘Charter for Equality of Opportunity’ to encourage BEM participation within the trade union movement (Davis et al:2003:26). From the exclusion of migrant workers of the 1950’s and 60’s unions have progressed through ‘colour blind policies’ towards including direct interventionist measures such as the introduction of race related committees and ‘positive action seats’. Unfortunately they have had very limited success.
A 1991 TUC survey found that the trade union structure had been ‘supplemented’ rather than ‘altered’ due to most of the race committees that were created having only an ‘advisory’ capacity (TUC 1991 cited in Kirton & Greene 2002:164). Whilst a 1998 TUC survey concluded that the presence of black representatives meant that it was more likely that negotiated agreements and procedures took into consideration the needs of BEM’s; black representatives were only a small minority of 4% (Labour Research Department 1998 cited in Kirton & Greene 2002:164).
Because black participation in the trade union movement has had slow progress, the TUC has introduced a number of measures to try to correct this. These include regular Equal Opportunities Audits and the creation of the ‘Stephen Lawrence Task Group’ whose main aim is to “identify and eradicate racism within the trade union movement”(Davis et al 2003:28).
It needs to be noted however that individual unions have developed at different paces when implementing policies towards racism with some of the more progressive unions such as UNISON introducing strategies that look at policies, decisions and processes and analyses the affect on minority groups (UNISON 2010:online). Others have only incorporated equality policies within their rule book but failed to act on them.
Despite the introduction of protective legislation such as the Race Relations Acts in the 60’s and 70’s (Davis et al 2003:13), 2000 Race Relations Amendment Act, the Race Equality duty in 2007 and the more recent 2010 Equality Act, BEM workers are still victims of direct and indirect discrimination in employment. Although legislation encourages British firms to implement equal opportunities, studies have reported that this has had little impact on invigorating change in employment outcomes (ibid:14).
National statistics show that BEM’s are more likely to be unemployed and live in low-income households (National Statistics 2002:online). In 2009 BEM’s employment rate was 59.6% compared to the white groups rate of 74% (Office of National Statistics 2010:online).
In 2004 research carried out by BBC Radio Live found that people recruiting for jobs appeared to discriminate on the basis of the name. 23% of applicants applying for work with English sounding names were invited to interviews whilst of the candidates with Muslim sounding names, only 9 percent were successful (Muir 2004:The Guardian online). Understandably Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the TUC described these findings as shocking and accused private-sector firms as holding “inherently racist views” (ibid).
The British trade union movement accepts that changes need to be made in society, in the workplace as well as in trade union structures as racism and discrimination are clearly still rampant. For this reason it is essential that trade unions continually reassess their anti-racist strategy.
For the purpose of this report, the next section will focus on the Communication Workers Union and in particular the Post Office Ltd (POL) sector of Royal Mail Group (RMG). It will examine the current internal policies, its successes and failures as well as make recommendations for a future strategy.
Royal Mail Group makeup of staff
In 2006, the ethnic makeup of staff in RMG consisted of 70% white workers, 21.8% are recorded as ‘other’ whilst 8% come from BEM (CWU 2006:4). Although these figures are comparable to the national average worryingly only 5.5% of the 8% BEMs are of a managerial grade. Other data shows that white employees are 13 times more likely to be managers and 27 times more like to be at a senior manager level (ibid). These statistics clearly indicate that there is a clear disparity between BEM’s and white worker’s career progress within RMG.
The POL workforce has the highest concentration of BEMs at 11% (ibid). In this sector there is only one BEM at regional or area level of the management structure (POL 2010:personal correspondence).
Within the CWU, there are no BEM’s on the National Executive and in the POL sector, none of the nine territorial representatives or twenty area representatives is from a BEM group (CWU 2006:4). Unfortunately there are no records of how many BEM members from POL are in the union due to the CWU being able to identify only 19% of their membership’s ethnicity (ibid).
The CWU are aware they are not progressing well on the issue of ethnic minority participation in the union and have incorporated in their rulebook two rules; one is around the commitment to address racism and discrimination whilst the second rule is advocating ‘positive action’ (See Appendix A). In 2006 they also published the booklet “Is the Communication Workers Union representative of its ethnic minorities?” and in 2010 produced the paper “Strategic Development and priorities for the Equality Department”.
Included in the 2006 booklet is a Black Workers Charter which outlines societal issues for ethnic minorities, supports BEM participation in the local community and encourages campaigning for an end to racism. It also advocates a number of initiatives such as campaigning for better training opportunities within the workplace, improved membership data, encourages self organisation within the CWU and a commitment to analyse and tackle under representation of BEM’s at all levels of the union (CWU 2006:10).
The priorities outlined in the 2010 Strategic development document set out a five year plan which included collating and analysing data so as to explore the issue of representation and proportionality, putting in place a strategy to identify and overcome barriers to minority groups as well as examine current policies and procedures. Disappointingly when comparing the 2006 booklet with the 2010 paper, many of the recommendations were similar which suggests that the union has made very little progress over the four years. The CWU is still not able to produce membership ethnicity breakdown and there has been no advancement of positive action.
At the beginning of 2010, the CWU and POL agreed a new Industrial Relations Framework. Despite the recommendations in both documents and the rules within the CWU rulebook advocating ‘positive action’ no measures were taken in the IRF to address the lack of BEM representatives within this sector of the union.
Four years ago, the CWU created a task force with a remit to move the question of BEM representation forward. One of the assignments was to study previous conference motions on the race issue. Their feedback was questionable. They referred to the proposal of ‘reserved seats’ as a “thorny issue” and their only comment on ‘positive action’ was to state that this work was “ongoing”. They made no recommendations with regards the motion that expressed concerns at the slow roll out of the two day ‘Equality and Diversity’ training and although they acknowledged there was “room for improvement” with regards ‘Equality proofing’ of national agreements, they failed to make any proposals as to how this issue could be progressed. The task forces overall recommendation was “to continue to monitor and evaluate the progress of conference policies on BEM issues” (CWU 2006:37).
With such a weak and indecisive approach, the CWU is likely to make very little progress towards racial equality. It is important that the union does not stay static. Below is a proposed anti racist strategy for POL sector of the CWU that concentrates on transformation as opposed to just talking about change.
Future anti-racist strategy
CWU representatives at all levels need to be educated as to the social, economic, and political barriers BEMs face in the workplace and in society. This should include teaching all activists the historical context of the racist ideology that permeates society.
To bring about change, Trade Unions need to examine their own structure to see if it is fit for purpose and look at how they can address the inequalities that may exist. Equal access has clearly not worked; therefore the CWU needs to create conditions that are more likely to result in equal outcome (Dean 2006:4). Below is a proposed action plan:
Introduction of specialist training courses
Develop and implement a targeted recruitment campaign in order to address the TU structure from the bottom up
Adapt a strategy that’s aim is to specifically engage with BEMs within the workplace with an objective of building confidence as well as involving and including them in the labour movement (Oikelome 2006:145).
Creation of ‘reserved or added seats’ at all levels of the union. At higher level this designated seat approach will help to ensure that BEM issues are taken into consideration in collective bargaining and when negotiating and brainstorming national policy (Kirton & Greene 2002:164). Many union representatives struggle with ‘affirmative action positions’ and use the argument that it is discriminatory to have special measures for someone because of their ethnicity and they should achieve equality based on merit. This ignores the fact that there is not a level playing field and that specific obstacles to BEMs need to be overcome.
Introduce ‘Appointed seats’ in recognition of the greater barriers BEM representatives have to face in the election process (Briskin 2006:18).
Use statistics with a view to creating ‘proportional strategies and proportional representation’ within the union. This will avoid tokenism and marginalization (ibid:22).
Educate all activists on the merits of positive action so as to avoid the discrediting of members that take up designated positions.
Collate race segregated statistics to discover what the makeup of the membership is and where it is located (ibid:6). This information can then be used for positive action.
Create a task force with a remit to achieve results within a time frame. The union needs to be more active in implementing policy and their union rules.
Race committees should be de-segregated so that they are not entirely separate from the mainstream union thus preventing them from becoming “powerless ghettos” with no influence on national policy or agreements (Kirton & Greene 2002:158). It is essential that they have structural links, input into policy forming as well as given decision making powers(ibid). BEMs should still be encouraged to self-organise.
The Stock Centre within POL has a high percentage of black workers from Goa, particularly on the night shift. This particular workplace has a local committee overseen by the Area Representative. The committee consists of 12 workers all of which are white. The CWU need to encourage BEM’s to participate on the committee, create a reserved seat if necessary and also help them to self-organise and work alongside the mainstream union.
The CWU needs to issue clear and regular communications and literature explaining any gains that have been achieved for BEMs so that it eliminates the concept that trade unions are a ‘white orientated organisation.’ Also the union needs to promote how they represent ethnic minority interests and publicise their commitment to race equality.
If institutional racism is found within the workplace (this is likely considering the lack of progression by BEMs), the CWU needs to use litigation to challenge it (Oikelome 2006:143). Although individual cases need to be dealt with promptly by the union, they need to be cautious that they are not just ‘sticking a plaster’ over a gaping wound. The publicity and high profile of a legal case would do much to challenge POL’s attitude.
The CWU needs to implement a mainstreaming policy as it is essential that unions raise the visibility of the inequality issues highlighted in this report as well as break down the existing culture, norms and stereo types from within. Mainstreaming is a strategy that looks at policies, decisions and processes and analyses the affect on the whole of the diverse workforce (Dean 2006:6). By taking this approach it will help to prevent protectionist barriers going up when discussing equality issues. The mainstreaming approach examines effectual outcome on all workers but gives equal status to all regardless of ethnic background.
Another proactive approach would be for activists to travel the country visiting branches, race advisory committees, Regional Equality Committees, and the National Race Advisory committee with a power point presentation highlighting the contents of this report.
The global economy and open gateway of Europe requires unions to work together internationally. Organisations such as the European Trade Union Confederation, (ETUC) and The International Trade Union Confederation need to use their voice to link countries and workers in their strive for workers rights. Strong links are the only way to help to address ‘worker against worker’ situations such as that that occurred in the Lindsey oil refinery.
This report has explored the historical background to the origins of racism in society and the labour movement. It highlights how racism and race discrimination divides workers to the benefit of the capitalist system and employers. Neither Trade Unions nor Governments have seriously tried to address the disparities in society and although the introduction of legislation such as the ‘Equality Act and Race Relations Act have been a step in the right direction, they are a long way from creating a level playing field and falls far short of equality in society and the workplace.
The CWU clearly has made very little progress on tackling poor participation of ethnic minorities into the union and have done very little to address inequalities. Any recommendations they make seem to be around ‘observing and assessing’ rather than actually putting in place positive measures. The union has politically correct policies but appears to have no inclination in actually implementing them. Racial issues should not be compartmentalised and viewed as ‘sectional issues,’ nor should they be shoved to the bottom of the trade union agenda. Instead the labour movement should recognise and be proactive in addressing the discrimination and inequality of all workers and focus on striving for fairness and parity for the whole of the diverse workforce. Inaction is not an option if racism and discrimination is to be addressed.
CWU RULE BOOK
2.1.4. “To actively oppose all forms of discrimination based on race, creed, religion, age, political affiliation, disability, marital status, sex or sexual/gender orientation in industry, the Union and society in general. To this end the CWU shall actively oppose any organisation, political or otherwise, whose aims are racist or fascist.
2.1.6 “To actively identify any cause or barrier that prevents the Union being fully representative of its members. This shall include positive action in favour of women and ethnic minorities until such time as the Union is satisfied that its structure reflects and supports the gender and racial balance of the members it represents”
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