'Giant of our movement'

Black History Month: Unite pays tribute to trade unionist, union education trailblazer and anti-racist campaigner Avtar Singh Jouhl

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Unite paid tribute to a giant of the trade union movement, trailblazer of union education, and tireless anti-racist campaigner Avtar Singh Jouhl after his death earlier this month.

Unite colleagues joined hundreds of others at Avtar’s funeral, which was held last Saturday (October 22).

Honouring Avtar’s legacy has never been more important than now, especially during Black History Month this month, which celebrates the achievements and contributions of Black and Asian Ethnic Minority (BAEM) people in the UK.

The theme of this year’s Black History Month is ‘Time for Change: Action not Words’ and arguably no other person has embodied this slogan more than Avtar, who was a central catalyst for lasting change among BAEM working-class communities.

Avtar was born in 1937 in Indian Punjab, and migrated to Smethwick in the West Midlands in 1958. Working in the foundry industry, he soon became active in the trade union movement through Unite’s predecessor union the Transport and General Workers’ union (T&G).

He was also central in the establishment of the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA), whose aim was to improve the working conditions of Indian and other immigrant workers to the UK. He later served as the IWA general secretary.

Avtar was seminal figure in opposition to the colour bar in pubs and housing in the West Midlands – it was through this campaigning work that he famously invited US civil rights activist Malcolm X to visit Smethwick, which was then a hotbed of racism.

Remembering Avtar is especially important to Unite’s education department, as Avtar later became a trade union educator.

Unite regional education officer for the East and West Midlands Lesley Hoo, who attended Avtar’s funeral told UniteLive, “It was a testament to his life and respect that there was so many there, from all the unions, community, family and friends.  There were as many outside the Crematorium as there were inside.

“Avtar was very active in the T&G when he worked in the foundry industry,” Lesley added. “He was instrumental in establishing black structures and conferences in the T&G and also with the TUC.  He has a stained glass window in a pub in Smethwick dedicated to him and the Indian Workers Association on bringing Malcolm X to Smethwick at the height of the Enoch Powell racist campaigns.

“Avtar became a trade union educator in the 70s and developed many of our activists to take up leading roles and fight racism,” she went on to say.

“I worked and campaigned alongside him as a tutor, comrade and friend over many years,” Lesley noted. “He was a giant of our movement and should be recognised for his outstanding contribution to the development of Black activists, officers and anti-racist campaigns in our union and the movement.”

Unite national officer for equalities Harish Patel likewise paid tribute to Avtar.

“I first met Avtar when I was a shop steward back in 1980 and his inspiration and direction provided an immense pathway for BAEM Equalities,” he said. “This included the organisational support to get the trade union movement to recognise and change to support Black workers which lead to the creation of the TUC Black Workers Conference and the election of the first black general secretary in the T&G.

“He will be greatly missed as he leaves a vacuum which is still difficult to fill,” Harish added.

Avtar’s son, Jagwant Johal, has documented Avtar’s life in a series of fascinating and poignant interviews with the man in himself on YouTube, which you can watch here.

You can also read an obituary of Avtar, including a full biography and details of all his achievements here. The obituary was written by Paul Mackney, a close friend and former general secretary of the NATFHE/UCU.

By Hajera Blagg

Main pic by Jagwant Johal – Family, used under Creative Commons license.

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