Black Lives still Matter

October is Black History Month, and we hear from Rosita Ellis, chair of the Regional Black Members Committee

The month of October is a time to look back and celebrate how Black people and communities have shaped our history. This year in particular, the celebration is bittersweet.  

With a backdrop of Covid-19, which disproportionately affected the Black community, the stark inequalities in our society are brought to the forefront. Black workers are more likely to work in lower paid public service jobs and are at higher risk of exposure to the virus as a result. Back in June, a Public Health England report on the effects of Covid-19 on Black workers highlighted that ‘historic racism and poorer experience of healthcare means that people from Black backgrounds are less likely to seek care when they need it.’ 

My own experience in the NHS has shown me that Black NHS workers are less likely to speak up when they have concerns about personal protective equipment, testing, or risk.  

The scandal here, is not that the virus has disproportionately affected certain groups, but that it has taken a global pandemic to shine a light on deeply entrenched social and economic inequality in our society. Racism, discrimination and stigma have also been identified as factors that increase the prevalence of conditions and the severity of the disease.  These inequalities are manifestations of the structural barriers and systemic discrimination faced by people from Black backgrounds.  

UNISON has always led the way in campaigning for better outcomes for Black workers, and has called for individual risk assessments for Black workers during Covid-19. We are dealing with an urgent situation now, but the work must and will continue when we are through the other side of the pandemic.  

Black History Month is a time to reflect on the important steps forward made by Black activists in society, but we must do more than look back. We must also deal with the situations we face today and look forward to the future.  

Recent events in the US, with the brutal killing of George Floydwho died after a white police officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, sparked protests worldwide, and the Black Lives Matter movement was thrust into the headlines. In the UK, there were widespread protests and as a result, an increased awareness of Black history, in particular of Britain’s part in the slave trade. The removal of statues commemorating slave owners is welcomed, but it must be combined with the inclusion of Black history on school curriculums. Whilst we cannot erase the past, we must educate future generations if we are to eradicate racism for good.  

As a Black woman trade unionist, I know only too well how UNISON members experience racism in the workplace and in wider society. The trade union movement has an important role to play, by giving Black workers a voice at work, by making sure that Black workers know their rights, and, by empowering them to organise together for change.  

During October, the regional education team are running two webinars for Black members and activists, which I encourage you to attend. Black members tackling racism is for all Black members and looks at what you can do at work and in the wider community. It’s taking place on 13 October, from 11.00am-12.00pm.  

Later in the month, a more detailed look at Eradicating racism in the workplace is aimed at all UNISON activists. This will include guidance on UNISON’s Race Protocol for casework. This webinar is on 28 October, again at 11.00am – 12.00pm. 

In my hometown of Oxford, we are working across several UNISON branches to bring together Black members, to organise together around issues affecting us all, regardless of where we work. I encourage you in your branches to do the same, to get involved with your union, and be visible in your branch. Only by organising together, as Black activists have done throughout Black history, can we bring about real change.  

We’d love to hear what you are doing in your branch to mark Black History Month this year, and your experiences as a Black member in 2020, both in work and in the wider community. If you’d like to share your story to be published on the regional website and our social media, please complete the form below. 

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Black History Month - share your story