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“We can’t do this work on our own”: an interview with Roger McKenzie

by The Editors, Roger McKenzie
September 14, 2020

We spoke to Roger about his experiences as a Black man within the labour movement, his Unison General Secretary candidature, and how best to organise for socialism and workers' control. 2386 words / 10 min read

Roger McKenzie is a trade unionist and socialist who is standing to be the next general secretary of Unison, one of the UK’s largest unions. A former chair of the Labour Party’s Black Sections, McKenzie has also worked as a union education tutor, and was co-chair of the Anti-Racist Alliance. His candidature was recently endorsed by Jeremy Corbyn.

New Socialist interviewed Roger about organising, socialism, and the future of the organised left.

NSFirst of all, what does the term ‘organising’ mean to you?

RMOrganising means giving power to workers in their workplaces and in their communities. I don’t see workplace organising as having no impact on communities. Once people are able to organise in their workplaces they are more likely, in my view, to take these skills out to use in the communities where they live, and also to intersect the workplace with their communities—for example in schools, where they might work, or where their children or relatives’ children might go.

NSSince the publication of Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts, the trade union movement seems to have started talking more about ‘organising’ again, but it often seems to just be a euphemism for recruitment. Have you read the book? If so, what did you think?

The trade union movement has these phases of saying that it is prioritising organising. However, density levels often remain far too low to change the balance of power between workers and employers.

RMThe trade union movement in the UK has these periodic phases of saying that it is prioritising organising. However, density levels and power for workers in many workplaces remains far too low to make a difference to change the balance of power between workers and employers. Jane’s book, which I have read, is an excellent contribution from which we can draw some useful approaches. It’s not the only way though and I’m always wary of taking a US model of organising into the UK context. There are similar but also many different challenges. I do agree that far too often in the UK context recruitment is often used too interchangeably with organising. They are not the same. Organising comes from having a strong activist base and long term and sustainable recruitment comes out of deep organising.

NSYou were one of many figures on the organised left to back Keir Starmer’s candidature for Labour leader. How do you feel his leadership is going, and are you disappointed that he has neglected to show solidarity with the trade union movement at a time when our members are experiencing some of the most dangerous and frightening conditions in generations?

RMUnison supported Keir and Angie Rayner. I think its too early to say how his leadership is going. It’s hardly been a normal time to take over as a Party leader. I want to give Keir a fair chance to make his mark because Unison members absolutely need a strong Labour government to replace these Tories. We expect full support from the entire front bench for existing policies agreed by Conference and we expect them to stand up for our members, many of whom are struggling to survive against increasingly hostile employers. Anything less and I would be making sure that Keir understands our concerns.

NSYou’ve passionately and persuasively made the case for political education in order to bring about a change in the way society is organised that would benefit working class people. How would you define ‘working class’?

RMI define working class as anyone who sells their labour for a wage. It’s important that everyone understands that this includes Black workers. There seems to be a whole trend towards excluding Black workers as part of the working class.

NSWould the sort of political education programme you have in mind involve the development of class consciousness, or is that not a useful concept for a union with a diverse range of socio-economic backgrounds?

RMI absolutely believe that political education programmes in Unison and elsewhere on the left should involve the development of class consciousness and solidarity. This is at the heart of my own trade unionism.

NSYou’ve talked about the need for the Labour Party to maintain its commitment to bringing public services “back in house”, but what form would that take? Would it mean a degree of worker-controlled industry?

RMIn the context of public services it means bringing the delivery of public services back under democratic control and not having your need for a public service being dependent on your ability to pay, or taxpayers (including Council Tax) handing over money to private companies so they profit from the need of the public.

NSDo you think the TUC unions were on board with Corbynism’s pledge to democratise the economy, or do you think they would prefer a return to something resembling the corporatism of postwar Keynesianism?

RMThe discussions that I was party to at the General Council of the TUC left me under no doubt at all that the trade unions were entirely on board with the Labour Party’s pledge to democratise the economy. I think it’s wrong to personalise this as Corbynism. These were pledges that were worked on jointly between the Party and the trade unions.

NSJeremy Corbyn’s presence on the ballot for the Labour leadership in 2015 saw a huge influx of new members. But this wasn’t mirrored in the unions. Why do you think this was?

RMNo, it wasn’t—to the best of my knowledge—mirrored by an influx of new members into the trade union movement. Many unions have been struggling to maintain their membership levels. Unison is doing well to have maintained our levels at 1.3 million for the best part of 27 years. I think it goes back to the point I made earlier about the need for more union activism to build real power in the workplace, as both a means of challenging the balance of power in the workplace and of encouraging the recruitment that I believe will flow from that. The more visible you are in the workplace, the more likely it is that new people will join, and that your existing membership will stay. To do that you need more activists on the ground.

The more visible you are in the workplace, the more likely it is that new people will join and your existing membership will stay. To do that you need more activists on the ground.

NSWhat can unions do to facilitate greater rank and file engagement? Do the unions need to become more democratic? Is Unison’s current democratic structure adequate?

RMMy previous answer dealt with the first part of this question. I think that there is widespread agreement in Unison that our structures are not entirely fit for purpose. Thousands of our members—personal assistant care workers,
for example—rarely see any of their colleagues, so we need to define a new meaning for the collective heart of trade unionism. It’s difficult to argue that our democratic structures are working when participation in many of our elections, both locally and nationally, are very low.

NSThe General Secretary of the PCS pledged to receive no more than the national average salary when elected. Is that something you’d consider, and if not, how will you ensure that you can relate to the struggles of poorly paid members?

RMNo, it’s not something I would consider. I have the greatest respect for Mark so my comments are in no way a criticism of him. It’s just not the foremost issue facing our members right now. They want someone who will stand up and fight for them and not make gestures. That’s what they will get from me.

NSHow should unions relate to the Labour Party, and particularly to proposals like Labour’s Green New Deal? How can they balance the concerns of members whose livelihoods might be affected with the imperative for radical action to combat climate breakdown?

RMWe are in a climate emergency and unlike those on the ultra-left—who one minute see anti-racism as the most important thing facing people, then the next minute it switches to climate change, then another Black person gets murdered and the focus switches back again—we can’t afford that type of flip-flopping as a serious trade union movement. We have to be in discussions with the Labour Party, pushing for a radical Green New Deal that actually does take into account the needs of workers.

NSMore broadly, what would be a satisfactory level of influence for unions on the party, with regard to policy- at both national and council level- and PPC selections? Should unions be persuading members to join the party? Does the Labour link need to be democratised?

RMWe should be taking Unison much more into the Labour Party than we do. Not just at NEC or regional level; I think there is a deficit of involvement at a local level. I absolutely do think we should try to do more to persuade members of Unison to join the Party. I think it’s about a lot more than democratising Labour Link so that there are clear decision making processes. Labour Link must be popularised across the Unison so that many more people take an active role.

NSIf you’re comfortable doing so, would you share some experiences of what it’s been like to be a Black man in the labour movement?

RMI have had to struggle my whole working life against racism within and outside the labour movement to get my voice heard and to move forward as a Black man. It’s not been easy by any stretch of the imagination. Without my involvement in the Labour Party Black Sections and a number of grassroots Black workers groups that help to promote Black self-organisation I’m not sure that I would have had the mental health and stamina to survive. Also, to now be told that, having survived long enough to become one of the most experienced assistant general secretaries of any union, Black or White, and to be one of the two or three most senior Black trade unionists in the country, and in spite of the obstacles I have had to overcome at every step, that some people think I shouldn’t be the next general secretary of the union because I work for the union is frankly insulting and ignores the rubbish I have had to face along the way. Many of the obstacles I’ve faced came from people who look very much like the people throwing that nonsense around. Then they either ask us why we say Black Lives Matter—what about all lives—or they say Black Lives Matter and do nothing.

I have had to struggle my whole working life against racism within and outside the labour movement to get my voice heard and to move forward as a Black man. It’s not been easy by any stretch of the imagination.

NSHow should trade unions and the wider movement engage with Black Lives Matter, particularly given that progressive change in Britain has almost always come about through the labour movement?

RMThe Black Lives Matter movement is one of the most vibrant social movements in my lifetime. Trade unions and the wider movement should be fully supportive, but not treat it as another convenient slogan to shout out when the time suits. They must demonstrate their commitment with actions. The question for the Left is: what are you actually going to do to demonstrate your commitment to showing that Black Lives actually Matter to you?

NSThere’s a battle being fought on the left at the moment over how we should approach ‘identity politics’. In this day and age, is it realistic or even desirable for workers to suppress their identities in the interests of class unity? If not, how can worker unity be brought about?

RMI think I dealt with this issue earlier, but I am not asking people to suppress their identities in the interest of unity. The same issue comes up when we use the term Black. Black is the colour of our politics, not the colour of our skin. In the UK, this is a unity between peoples of African and Asian descent. We never ask people not to remember that they have heritage that is African or Asian, or to subsume their religious identities. The aim is to identify a point of unity or solidarity so that we can move forward against those who are seeking to oppress us. I think the same applies in terms of class in my view.

The trade union movement needs to actually prioritise workplace organising by building our activist base. We then need to build coalitions with organisations like those organising on climate change and Black Lives Matter.

NSYou self-identify as a socialist. What does socialism mean to you? How can it usefully be defined in the 21st century?

RMI do self-identify as a socialist. I don’t think there is any difference in the definition for the 21st century as compared to the last century or the one before. I believe in equality and social justice for everyone. I also oppose the exploitation of one group of people over another for any reason, but particularly over the exchange that takes place over labour in the workplace.

NSFinally, with a hard right government whose reaction to COVID-19 could mean severe restrictions on collective action, it feels like it may be now or never for the trade union movement. What do the unions need to do—and how do they need to change—during what may be an existential battle against the forces of reaction?

RMThe trade union movement needs to actually prioritise workplace organising, and to do this by building our activist base. We then need to build coalitions with organisations like those organising on climate change and Black Lives Matter. We must understand that we cannot do this work on our own. We need to build a movement for change that will be relevant to workers’ everyday experiences, and that gives them hope that a better world is possible. Without a movement, we will not win. That’s for sure. With a broad-based movement, we have a chance of bringing about real change. That was the promise of the Corbyn leadership that gave so many people hope and moved them into activity. There’s no reason we can’t re-create that same energy and optimism.

We’ve lightly edited this interview for clarity and concision.


Authors:

The Editors (@newsocialistuk)

The New Socialist editorial collective.


Roger McKenzie (@Roger4GS)

Roger McKenzie is a trade unionist and socialist who is standing to be the next general secretary of Unison.