The Black Lives Matter movement has been a long time coming – statement from UoB Unison

Many institutions, companies and organisations have been very vocal about racial inequalities in the UK and others just showed up last week. No one is perfect and we know that we- as the UNISON union branch at UoB can and want to do better. We don’t want to take what has been said/talked about and move forward: we want to take a pause. This pause may be for a while, but we cannot move forward until we recognise what is the current situation, what has been before, what we want our journey to look like and who we hope to have join us for our new direction.

Statements referencing the world-wide demonstrations and protests on the killing of George Floyd and monumental surge in the Black Lives Matter movement, have led to many employers stating their commitment to minority groups and maintaining an inclusive environment. It’s a bit of a hollow statement for many, as their work environments have never been inclusive neither diverse.

Our union branch’s standards and ethics are to support all, challenge inequalities and speak up for those that cannot use their voice. We are not ignorant to the facts that we have got lots wrong and to hear the hurt that has been caused as a result. We are quick to call out poor practice, but we acknowledge that it may be that we have not noted our own poor practice. For many Black and minority staff, their reality is one that is not witnessed, experienced or believed by their white colleagues. This can be frustrating, alienating and difficult to live with-a bit like screaming in your dream and no one can hear you. No one likes to be unheard, no one wants to be ignored. The union is inclusive, but when a black or minority staff member may want to join a protest, demonstration or Union Rally we understand that they have to think about how it will be perceived by their Manager and colleagues. If they are already discriminated and bullied in their job, they don’t want to stoke the fire by having another unwarranted reason for their job to be untenable. When one feels that their employment rights are on fragile ground, they are very likely to avoid the picket lines and stay out of the “headlights” especially if they are treated like they are always in the wrong and are in a “bad light” already. With admiration, respect and gratitude we witnessed black and minority staff among our members, who stood up and fought for a fair pay rise alongside their colleagues last year as part of UNISON’s strike action.  Remember the demonstrations of last year? It was the members that stood side by side from 5am right through to the rallies, passing around the biscuits and vegan breakfast baps, who won a better pay rise for all.

The uncomfortable truth is that the black and minority members in our university are few. We live in the 2nd biggest city in the UK- the birthplace of Musical Youth and “adopted” home of the Balti, but yet the number of staff from a Black and Minority Ethnicity that the university employ is pitiful. There are over 8000 staff at the university- have you ever looked at the Senior Management Team for your department? Can you count how many staff you have seen that look a bit like Lenny Henry, Alison Hammond (This Morning), Shefali Oza (BBC Midlands Today) or Amol Rajan (BBC One Show)? Now the staff that look like these personalities, have they been the manager? The one doing your PDR? The black and minority staff who do work at the University disproportionately work as support staff rather than senior managers, and it falls to UNISON to represent them. The University of Birmingham was built for the people of Birmingham- we want to see more people from the city work here and to work in more senior roles, and not rejected because their interview panel don’t think “they have the right look”, “won’t fit in” or are “over qualified.”

What do we want to do to create change?

  • Demand a revision on the recruitment process at the university including representation on the interview panel and blind applications. How can we increase the number of BAME staff at our union branch if the university will not employ any BAME people to potentially join?
  • Have these frank, uncomfortable and honest conversations about staff members experiences- the good, bad, ugly and woeful. It can be hard to believe some of the experiences that our members go through, but to hear their accounts shows solidarity and with a shared voice we can make a greater collective noise!

Other links and information

  • UNISON information on Black Members and Equality – this includes information about UNISON’s black members group including conferences, campaigns and how you can get involved. Note that the Unison definition of being a Black member is inclusive of everyone usually under the “BAME” umbrella. If you’d like to get involved at a branch level please get in touch and as we say above we’ll be trying to do more of this in coming months.
  • The regional black members self-organised group will be meeting online on the 25th of June, 6-8pm to discuss Covid-19 and the death of George Floyd. Please contact us or email unisonbham@contacts.bham.ac.uk if you are a UNISON member and would like to attend.
  • There are so many events and protests going on around the UK in support of this – contrary to what you see in the news protests have been peaceful and many have maintained social distancing throughout as well as encouraging attendees to wear face coverings. Here are two Birmingham events in particular that have been shared with the branch on Facebook (they are not endorsed by or organised by UNISON but we wanted to share the details with you):
  • A member recently attended an online session headed by Liam Byrne MP (and Labour candidate for West Midlands Mayor) and Baroness Doreen Lawrence and asked us to share these details. They are preparing a public inquiry into the disproportionate number of BAME deaths from Covid 19 in the West Midlands. Liam Byrne is collecting witness testimonies from the families and friends of black and Asian people who have died of Covid-19 in the W Midlands. These will feed into Baroness Doreen Lawrence’s public inquiry into the disproportionate number of BAME deaths in the region. Written testimonies may be sent to covidenquiry@liambyrnemp.co.uk ; you may also sign up to give your statement online.

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