Unison’s Roger McKenzie: “We had petrol bombs put through our letter box growing up”

The Unison General Secretary candidate speaks to LFF about his background, racism, and the trade union movement.

Roger McKenzie, one of four candidates running to become the General Secretary of Unison – the UK’s largest union – has opened up to Left Foot Forward about his experiences of racism, and how he first got involved in the trade union movement.

Left Foot Forward is conducting interviews with all four candidates who secured enough nominations. Voting starts on October 28th and the results will be announced on January 11th. Read our interview with candidate Christina McAnea here. This is the first part of our interview with Roger McKenzie.

Tell us about your background as a trade unionist. How did you get involved in the movement?

“I left school on a Friday, with hardly any qualifications. I was on building sites by Monday. By the end of the week, I was a subs collector for the union, the youngest and blackest member.

“My job was to collect subs from people in their wage packet. I don’t think I collected a penny – I collected absolute abuse. I had tools and bricks thrown at me, and loads of racist abuse.

“I’ve always been brought up in the movement – my dad was a trade unionist, a railway worker for 30 years. Mum was a trade unionist, too. I remember being called in to the front room before starting work, and told to join a union, and become a rep. You need to make your voice heard.

“I was born and brought up in Walsall, in the Black Country. I started school a couple of months after the Rivers of Blood speech by Enoch Powell [1968], which was made nine miles away in Birmingham’s New Street Station.

“It had an impact on my whole schooling – being called all sorts, having to fight my way to school in the morning, fight on the way back, and fight at school too. There was racist abuse from not just pupils but teachers too. I was going home to find our house daubed with racist slogans, dog mess, and petrol bombs thrown through our letter box. That’s what we were brought up in.

“You can try and deal with it as an individual if you want to – but a far better way is doing it collectively.

First strike

“I took industrial action as a painter and decorator: my employer said they wouldn’t pay me what they promised. They said ‘accept it, you black bastard’. I said ‘you can’t sack me because I’m in the union and I’m on strike’.

“I spent a week with my homemade picket sign. Delivery workers wouldn’t cross the picket line, so the employer couldn’t get paper and paint. I won that dispute.

“I went to work for Walsall council, joining the National Union of Public Employees [which merged into Unison in 1993]. One of my proudest days towards end of 1981, my workmates electing me as their steward.

Racism in the union movement

“I never experienced racism within NUPE. Other occasions during work as trade unionist I’ve certainly experienced it. I worked at one place in Manchester as a TU education tutor. The boss, I felt, was picking me out – I thought it was racist. I was being singled out. Nobody did anything to support me. I always regretted that. I understand it’s difficult – but when you see injustice and discrimination, you have to stand up and make your voice heard.

“I ran one course with a union – the Commission for Racial Equality had found them guilty of discrimination, and told they had to put on a training course for reps. I went to teach that course.

“It was quite clear they’d just been given a load of spending money to go for weekend and endure the course – to do what they like in the evening. It was awful. Just a union ticking a box.

“We have to move beyond unions just ticking a box, putting on a Black Lilves Matter badge because it’s fashionable, and not doing anything to tackle fascism. [Some] don’t do anything but wear the fashion badge.

“Lots of black workers are facing real issues – we expect the union movement to stand up and do something, not wear anti-racism as some kind of fashion statement. I support what the union movement is doing at the moment – the TUC reinstating a task force against racism.

“The Stephen Lawrence task force [in the early 2000s] changed the rules of the TUC. It was strange that unions didn’t have to demonstrate a commitment to equality. The fact we have to set this up again suggests maybe we took our eye off the ball a little. We need to make sure all unions are taking active steps to challenge racism and inequality.

“Anything that lets us take a coordinated approach is to be welcomed. We can’t just say the taskforce done its job – another report for the shelf. It should become fundamental to the work of the trade unions.

“Marching is one thing – it’s really important. What really makes a difference is what we do to change the fact many of our workers are still facing discrimination every day, and feel we’re not doing enough every day to act on that. Black workers are side-lined, excluded from meetings – it’s really important for unions to challenge that every day, not just for Black History Month.”

Dave Prentis has been the union’s leader for nearly 20 years. What went right or wrong in that time for Unison?

“I have an enormous amount of respect for Dave Prentis…nothing I say aimed at undermining his work. I want to build an organising union – I said that from Day 1, and today. I see an opportunity to be able to do that.

“We need to build real power for our members in the workplace. There are 150,000 workplaces where we have Unison members, at 40,000 employers. Many are private sector – around 200,000 members.

“We need to be a union that delivers them some real power. Many haven’t had a decent pay rise in many years. They are bullied in workplaces, treated with contempt, and during a pandemic – put in harm’s way without PPE. The reason employers are able to get away with that is they have the power. We need to change that, to build strong union organisation. And we need more people active in our union.

“We need more shop stewards and health and safety reps, making any contribution they feel they can make.”

Part 2 of this interview will be published on Wednesday. This interview has been slightly cut for brevity.

Josiah Mortimer is co-editor of Left Foot Forward.

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