Unison’s Roger McKenzie Speaks on BAME Self-organization From 1980 to Now
This week, Labour International’s BAME Forum welcomed Roger McKenzie, Assistant Secretary General of Unison for a talk on the struggles and successes of BAME self-organisation in the labour movement. Listen to the full session.
Kicking off the talk, McKenzie addressed the importance of terminology, and why the acronym BAME has not been welcomed by everyone.
“Far too many people try and define us, and that’s just wrong. We have to be in position to define ourselves,” he said.
The Labour Party Black Sections, which McKenzie was centrally involved in during the 1980s, used the term black broadly, to encompass African, Caribbean and Asian members.
“The key for us was solidarity. Sivanandan put it best when he said, black isn’t the colour of our skin, it’s the colour of our politics.”
He noted that the Labour Party Black Sections was born out of a frustration of the black vote being taken for granted, and only lip service being paid to anti-racism, in a stark parallel with what is happening today.
“Like a lot of people, I’m absolutely fed up of people saying they are against racism, but not being anti-racist. They are different things,” he said.
Drawing on his personal experiences of racism, McKenzie talked of the fear of being attacked that was very real for black communities in the 1960s and 70s; the need to fight his way through school and later, the workplace. At the age of 17, he organised a one man strike action against a racist employer – and won.
“We rebelled. There’s never been a knight in shining armour for black people. Never. It was the great June Jordan that wrote – we are the ones we have been waiting for.”
Moving to Manchester became a pivotal moment for McKenzie, followed by a move to London, where he was able to get more involved in the Labour Party Black Sections and learn from people like Narendra Makanji and Martha Osamor.
When asked how these struggles transfer to the present day, McKenzie underlined the need to apply pressure once again to the Labour Party and Trade Unions.
“There is a real reticence across the labour movement, not just in the Labour Party, to deal with anti-black racism. I think it’s time to take a cold hard look at […] what needs to be done to tackle the racism we experience. You cannot keep running around saying Black Lives Matter and think that’s enough. It’s not enough to deal with what we are facing,” he said Deaths in custody and overrepresentation among COVID deaths were just two examples McKenzie cited of current struggles for black communities that are not being tackled effectively.
He spoke of the need to resurrect a book written by the Labour Party Black Sections, called the Black Agenda, which covered a range of topics from education to the environment and housing, as it is still so relevant today.
“It wasn’t just about representation, as important as that was and still is, it was about the policies, the politics,” he commented.
“We have been talking about these things for a long time and not very much has been done. And that’s not good enough for our movement, we are much better than that.”
McKenzie questioned the current status of black self-organization within the party, and whether it can be considered as being controlled by the people.
“We have to reclaim the whole notion of black self-organization not just in the party but the whole labour movement, we need real change to take place and for people to understand their own power.”
Collaboration with the wider party, and those that do not identify as black will be key to change, McKenzie underlined.
“I’m not after allies, I’m after collaborators. It’s different. I don’t need people to share a hashtag, I need people to go out and do something. Challenge people. Challenge the racism that we see every day and organise alongside us.”
“But this is the important thing. Organise alongside us, don’t talk for us. For far too long people have decided they will speak on our behalf, and not listen to what we’ve got to say. Listen to our experiences, listen to what we think should be done, as we are the ones who feel it every day.“
“I’m an organizer at the end of the day. In the end, what will make a difference is people who are prepared to roll up their sleeves, go out and organize.”