Labour Research October 2020


BAME participation: how are unions faring?

In a year that has seen a resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement, Labour Research asked UK unions what they are doing to encourage Black and minority ethnic members to join up, become active and move into senior positions.

The brutal murder in May this year of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis had an impact around the world.

It launched protests and discussions about race across all aspects of life as well as prompting many employers to look at how they can promote greater diversity in their ranks.

This is needed. In the UK, data from the Office for National Statistics shows that 14% of the UK working age population is BAME; in London it is more than 40%.

However, UK workplaces frequently do not reflect this. And now, with BAME people four times more likely to die from a COVID-19-related cause than white people (see pages 13-15), it is imperative their voices are heard in the unions.

Labour Research survey

It was 2012 when Labour Research last surveyed the efforts of TUC-affiliated unions to encourage BAME engagement with, and participation in, the life of the union. Our new survey reveals that, promisingly, unions have increased their efforts to reach out to BAME members.

Twenty unions took part in the new survey including nine of the 10 largest. Direct comparisons between unions is not possible due to different union structures and the way data is collected.

BAME participation and representation

Union (in alphabetical order) Membership (as supplied by unions, Aug-Sept 2020)1 BAME membership % (not all members declare ethnicity) BAME membership of NEC % (not all members declare ethnicity) Reserved seats on NEC
Accord 23,900 8% 5% X
ASLEF 23,586 8% 0% X
Community 36,000 see main text not available
CSP 59,000 9% see main text see main text
CWU 193,670 9% 10% X
EIS 60,924 1% 0% X
Equity 46,378 4% 12%
FBU 32,780 4% 8% X
GMB 600,000 11% see main text
NEU 450,000 5% 5%
NASUWT 281,131 5% 4% X
PCS 178,650 10% 15%
POA 31,437 see main text 0% X
Prospect1 150,000 3% 21% X
RCM 48,636 7% 8% X
RMT2 82,000 21% 6% X
TSSA 18,319 7% 0% X
UNISON 1,300,000 15% 10%
Unite 1,152,609 7% 11%
Usdaw 398,660 15% estimate3 0% X

1 Including Bectu sector

2 The RMT includes Irish in its BAME calculations

3 Usdaw does not monitor membership ethnicity via the membership form. It does monitor the ethnicity of ‘activists’, e.g. members attending national and regional conferences and training courses.


While the majority of the participating unions (85%) collect data on the ethnicity of their membership, many said their figures were an underestimate as significant numbers of members do not disclose their ethnicity and, in other cases, unions have not updated all their membership profiles.

For example, at the 194,000-member CWU communication workers’ union, a little under one-tenth of members are recorded as BAME. But one CWU study found that 82,574 members have not declared their ethnicity, and the union now recommends that “more needs to be done to encourage members to declare their origin”.

The Equity actors’ union believes the lack of disclosure on ethnic monitoring forms reflects, in part, the lack of a culture across the entertainment industry of poor, or no, workplace monitoring and, more importantly, cultures of racism and exclusion that encourage a downplaying of identity.

Unions also encounter difficulties regarding achieving fair BAME representation in the union if BAME workers are underrepresented in the workforce itself. For example, the ASELF train drivers’ union which says it represents the vast majority (97%) of train drivers, pointed out that “the number of BAME drivers is pitifully low, and this adds a further complication to having diverse structures within the union”.

ASLEF says it has campaigned for many years for train and freight operating companies to diversify their recruitment. This is something it highlighted in On track with diversity, a report it produced in 2012, and again in 2019, into levels of diversity among train drivers in Britain.

Many unions are increasingly committed to achieving proportionality between their BAME membership and their union structures although, for this to be truly meaningful, the overall BAME membership numbers must be accurate.

The CWU, for example, has recently announced a big push to achieve proportionality across each equality strand and has redesigned its equality structures.

Meanwhile, the POA prison officers’ association informed Labour Research that it is currently working on a new membership system and so, in future, will be able to report more fully on its BAME representation.

General secretary and senior management

When it comes to representation at the very top of the unions, only one union affiliated to the TUC currently has a BAME general secretary.

This is the NASUWT teachers’ union which elected unopposed its first BAME general secretary in Patrick Roach earlier this year following Roach’s tenure for 10 years as deputy general secretary. (Outside the ranks of the TUC, Donna Kinnair is chief executive and general secretary of 450,000-member Royal College of Nursing.)

Public services union UNISON’s top leadership team of six includes BAME assistant general secretary Roger McKenzie, one of the hopefuls standing to replace Dave Prentis as general secretary (see page 7). And the POA has recently recruited BAME assistant general secretary Angela Montgomery.

The NEU education union also reported that it has one deputy general secretary and one assistant general secretary from BAME backgrounds.

As the RMT rail workers’ union includes people with Irish heritage in its BAME definition, this includes Steve Hedley, senior assistant general secretary.

Several unions reported BAME representation in their senior management teams which is promising in terms of increasing representation in union leadership teams in the future.

At the Unite general union, one of 10 regional secretaries, who the union classifies as part of the union’s senior management team, is from a BAME background. The GMB general union has Rehana Azam as its public services national secretary. And at UNISON, four BAME senior managers, two BAME “level one” managers, and two out of 12 of UNISON’s regional secretaries are Black.

While there are some grounds for optimism, little has changed here compared to the 2012 Labour Research survey of BAME representation in unions when there were no BAME general secretaries, and two BAME deputy general secretaries.


Excluding dedicated race equality officers, just over a third of unions in our survey had BAME representation at national negotiating level.

Examples include the NASUWT teachers’ union — 33% of these national officials are from a BAME background compared to only 5% in our 2012 survey.

Both Unite and Equity have exceeded proportionality at this level. Unite, has 10% national negotiating officials compared to a 7% overall BAME membership, while Equity has 6% national negotiating officials compared to a BAME membership of 4%. And the PCS civil service union reported achieving exact proportionality in this area.

Previous surveys had only found patchy data on numbers of BAME officials working at regional level. Reassuringly, our 2020 survey found that nearly all unions could now supply some data for this. And a third of them, including smaller unions such as the Accord financial services union, had achieved proportionality here.

Direct comparisons between unions are not possible as not all unions differentiate between national and regional officials. However, nearly a third (30%) of the Community general union’s officials are from a BAME background. Community does not currently have records of its overall BAME membership but is undertaking a project looking into improving data collection.

A quarter of Equity’s full-time regional officers hail from BAME communities. In this area, the Usdaw retail union monitors the ethnicity of candidates at the recruitment stage, but this information is not kept following appointment.

National Executive Committee

The survey also asked unions for information on their most senior lay officers — those who sit on the unions’ national executive committees (NECs).

Two-thirds of unions had at least one BAME member on their NEC. For example, one-fifth of the NEC of the Prospect professionals’ union is from a BAME background, far exceeding the proportion of its overall 3% BAME membership.

Where applicable, over a third of unions in our survey had NEC reserved seats.

Examples include the PCS which has reserved seats to ensure it has BAME members. However, these reserved seats have not been needed for a number of years as BAME members have become NEC members via election.

The union currently has one vice-president and four ordinary members of the NEC from a BAME background (equivalent to 15%).

The GMB general union’s central executive council, its senior lay body, has five reserved BAME seats plus two additional seats are held by BAME members.

As part of the CWU’s redesign of the union it has introduced equality strand roles to its NEC, and BAME representatives have increased from one to four members, representing 10% of the NEC, compared to a membership of 9%.

And, as of last month, the council of the CSP physiotherapists’ union, its senior lay body, has agreed a co-opted seat for a member of its BAME network.

TUC Congress

In 2012, we examined the BAME representation of union delegations to the TUC annual Congress conference.

This year, there was no physical TUC Congress due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, our survey did look at the proportion of BAME members in the 2019 TUC union delegations.

We found that nearly four-fifths of unions in our survey monitored representation in their delegations to the TUC Congress (although not all the unions send delegations to TUC).

In 2019, 20% of UNISON’s delegation were from a BAME background, with 14% for Unite, 15% for the NASUWT, 17% for both the PCS and the FBU firefighters’ union, 11% for the GMB and the RMT rail union and 9% for Usdaw.

Union initiatives to increase BAME participation

Many unions had initiatives to increase BAME participation — and there are indications that these have borne fruit in the last year. The PCS, for example, reported that since March, and as part of its COVID-19 response, it has stepped up engagement with BAME members, including through national and regional open meetings and Facebook live events.

In June, the RCM midwives’ union issued a statement committing to become more representative of its membership.

The union said it will invest in more training and awareness for staff and reps, stating that “we recognise the challenge in building the confidence and trust of our BAME members and the midwives and MSWs [maternity support workers] who do not see a place for themselves within the RCM”.

And in March, Equity’s governing council instructed the union to create the Independent Commission on Race Equality (ICRE) a body that will devise a long-term anti-racism policy and strategy. In addition, as part of the union’s activist-led network, the West End Black Theatre Workers’ Network has recently been set up.

The CSP, meanwhile, says it will commit to more transparency on what projects CSP BAME network members can get involved in. It will also address educational barriers to physiotherapy.

Accord’s equality, diversity and inclusion group is helping shape future plans and will be hosting an event and sharing information to mark Black History Month.

The TSSA transport union established a BAME network of members in December 2018, a network that has mushroomed from three to 50 people since January 2019. The union is holding its first race equality conference in November. The GMB had also planned a national race summit for November, although this has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Prospect, including its Bectu broadcasting, entertainment and theatre sector, reported a sharp rise in engagement from both non-members and members when this year’s Black Lives Matter protests began.

Branches set up sub-committees and working groups on equality and diversity with many BAME members joining who had not previously been very active in the union.

Unite reported that one of its initiatives has fostered BAME engagement in public life, with the introduction of a candidate development programme for its BAME members.

The programme aims to help activists navigate the Labour Party selection process to become Labour Party candidates, and has seen Marsha de Cordova and Kate Osamor, who were both active union members, elected as MPs.

UNISON said the union now has black members’ participation at all levels, with many holding senior positions as chairs and vice-chairs of the union’s strategic committees, while three of the seven UNISON members on the TUC general council are black.

The union also pointed out that its head of equality, Gloria Mills, was elected in 2015 as president of the European TUC women’s committee. (Mills is also one of the vice-presidents of the European Trade Union Confederation, the major union organisation representing workers at European level.)

The NEU education union is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its black educators’ conference, open to all Black members. The union is currently developing a Black leadership course. Meanwhile, the NASUWT’S annual BME teachers’ consultation conference attracts over 500 BME teachers. This year, the union elected its first BAME woman president in Michelle Codrington-Rogers.

Another education union, the EIS teachers’ union in Scotland, reported that it is developing a new programme of awareness-raising events and training for its reps and is establishing a national EIS BAME member network that will provide training, including looking at leadership skills.

Usdaw runs a Black members’ weekend workshop which attracts newer, less active members, with the union finding that many go on to take up lay roles as a result. Since 2018, the union has also run a BAME activist development programme designed to address under-representation of BAME members.

The 2020 TUC report, Dying on the job — racism and risk at work, called on unions to take action to ensure that BAME workers are able to raise issues of race discrimination in the workplace and to increase BAME workers’ confidence that they will be supported in their struggles for fair treatment at work.

As part of this, it highlighted the importance of ensuring BAME workers are represented at all levels in union structures and on the main decision-making bodies of their organisations. Now is clearly a watershed moment.

• In this feature we use the term Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) to refer to anyone that self-identifies as any ethnic minority group other than White. However we recognise that terminology and definitions vary according to unions.