Trade Unionism and the Asian Youth Movements

Asian Youth Movement poster in solidarity with the 1984-85 miners' strike.

A look at the engagement of Asian Youth Movement activists with workers' struggles and the British trade union movement.

Embedded in a Marxist philosophy that maintained a belief in the need for all exploited groups to unite, the AYMs recognised the need to support workers' struggles in all communities. The aims and objectives of AYM (Bradford) argued 'that the only real force in British society capable of fighting racialism and the growth of organised racism and fascism is the unity of the workers' movement — Black and White'. It offered commitment 'to encourage youth to integrate themselves into the organisations — trade unions and political parties — of the British working class', while recognising ‘that the same organisations ... are not themselves free of racialist influences, and that in encouraging our members and sympathisers to join these organisations, it would be necessary for them to fight racialist elements and influences within these organisations.’ (AYM Bradford 1979:13).

This approach highlights the influence of the IWAs [Indian Workers’ Associations] in both theory and practise and the AYMs worked in conjunction with the IWAs in many of the strikes that they were to support. AYM (Manchester) educated younger members about strikes such as that of Imperial Typewriters to highlight the contradictory relationship of black workers to British trade unions in their journal Liberation, summed up by the statement from TGWU founder Ben Tillet: 'You are our brothers and will do our duty by you but we wish you had not come' (AYM Manchester 1981a:8).

There were times when the struggle against racism and support for trade unionism worked together as in the case of the arrest and attempted deportation of Saeed Rahmon, a trade union activist who was arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of being an illegal immigrant, but the AYMs also gave support to trade union and workers struggles more broadly. Their main focus was to support black workers that were being treated unfairly. IPYA [Indian Progressive Youth Association] and members of AYM (Manchester) had supported both Imperial Typewriters and the Grunwick strike in the 1970s. In the 1980s, Asian Youth Movements in Bradford, Birmingham and Sheffield supported non-unionised workers at Aire Valley Yarns in Bradford and Kewal Brothers in Birmingham (tandana.org JR 1) .

These strikes were not always about the racism of employers or trade unions. The strike at Kewal Brothers in Birmingham in 1984 and at Warrington Messenger in 1983 were examples of the youth challenging exploitative Asian businessmen. In Birmingham, the Asian Youth Movement and the IWA supported what were mainly Asian women workers in their rights to join a trade union, in a clothing firm where women workers were being paid as little as £1 per hour. In Bradford, Jani Rashid, a member of the National Graphical Association remembered the strike in Warrington as a key point in his trade union activity. The youth movement supported the strike against Eddie Shah, a black businessman who moved employees from Scotland to Warrington and tried to change their working conditions. In doing so they had to confront the racism of workers and activists on the picket line:

The main campaign I remember that was of any use was not really in defence of black or Asian workers but in fact against a black employer. I used to organise pickets from Bradford to Warrington. Eddie Shah basically tried to change the working conditions of printers who he'd moved from Scotland to Warrington under the pretext of giving them better livelihoods, but it turned out it was an opportunity for him to introduce new technology without fully consulting the workers. That turned out to be quite a massive campaign, supported by the Trades Council and trade unions. It sort of felt uncomfortable to me but in principle it was the right thing to do. There were racist comments that were made on the picket line every so often and we had to get on the megaphone and tell people that this was not a race issue and that the sort of comments that they were making were racist and shouldn't be made against anyone even if he was a bad employer... (J. Rashid 2007)

The complicated position of dealing with racism in the trade unions as well as building solidarity was also clear in the experiences of AYM (Sheffield) during the miners' strike. The AYM produced posters to mobilise South Asians in support of the miners and took minibuses to the picket line where they experienced both racism and solidarity. As Mukhtar Dar recalls:

we would go and wake up our members early in the mornings, throw stones at the windows so that mums and dads wouldn't wake up, get them out, get them in the back of the minibus, drive to Orgreave... I remember on one occasion this disgruntled young lad that I had woken at six in the morning. When we arrived one of the miners — not all of them — said 'what the hell are these Pakis doing here?' So this young lad turned round to him and said, 'thank you very much for waking me up at six in the morning only to get racist abuse'. To which my response was, 'brothers you've got to recognise that, we can see the bars and some of them can't'. (Dar 2006)

Others in the mining communities however welcomed and embraced the need for solidarity, as Mukhtar remembers:

... some of the mining communities that we went and stayed with, the way that we were treated, the humility, the humbleness of the miners, the hatred that we had for the police and the siege that we experienced in our communities, and the way we were being treated by the police, I saw that echoed by the mining families and the anger, the passion and the way they were seeking to organise... there were lots of parallels. (Dar 2006)

It was not just the youth, but the IWAs also supported the miners' cause. Jim Denham has noted how ‘street collections on the Soho Road (a very poor black and Asian area) were known to be amongst the best supported in Birmingham and miners squabbled over who should get that “patch”’ (Denham 2004). The solidarity offered by AYMs and IWAs was to have a lasting impression on those active in the miners' strike, as the committee minutes document: 'Brother from Lea Hall reported that they had a greater understanding of police harassment themselves now and would always support ethnic minority groups coming up against it in future especially as they were supporting the NUM so solidly now' (in Denham 2004). The miners returned the support during the Kewal Brothers strike, as Denham documents: 'Cannock miners, with barely enough money to feed their own families, hired coaches to take 150 Lea Hall and Littelton miners to the Kewal picket line'.

While the AYMs retained a commitment to trade union organisation and workers struggles, the attitude of the left towards them was mixed. Some organisations such as the Socialist Workers Party labelled them as Black nationalists and viewed their belief in the need for independent black organisations as reactionary. The SWP attitude to the AYMs and later the UBYL meant that they only offered token support to activities that the Asian youth organised. As Ijaz commented, 'All the time in the Bradford 12, the role was they'll come, they'll send one or two, they will never mobilise, they won't give money, they won't give any support they will come to sell their papers' (Ahmed 1987).

Aware of the rising attraction of 'black power' in the 1970s, SWP produced their own pamphlets on 'The Black Worker in Britain' as well as the magazine Chingari (Spark) but these initiatives were critical of the 'spontaneous rising of a black vanguard' which they argued 'lead only to established dead ends' (Singh 1974). To the Asian youth who saw autonomy as an attempt to unite as equal, organisations such as SWP only appeared to want to control them or use them. Other sections of the left, such as the CPGB, were simply too preoccupied and were mainly concerned to mobilise the black community, 'into their political battles. They never had time to look at our immediate problems, so it became futile to refer to them. So blacks ended up in total isolation within the broad left because of the left's basic dishonesty' (cited in Smith 2010:62). A few organisations from the revolutionary left such as Big Flame, that were active from 1974 to 1983 (a similar period to the AYMs most active period), supported the right of black people to organise independently, offered solidarity and promoted black led struggles in their newspaper. Max Farrar (a former member of Big Flame) has described the kind of independent organising that AYMs and the Race Today Collective were involved with as 'black self organisation for socialism which is autonomous of, but not cut off from, the white majority' (Farrar 2001).

Originally from Anandi Ramaurthy's excellent book, 'Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements'.