From current edition of Big Issue in the North magazine. Please buy a copy when you see a seller.
Bradford bus driver Mohammad Taj has made history by becoming the first South Asian president of the TUC. He speaks to Mark Metcalf about his campaigning priorities, the dangers of scapegoating migrants – and his love of hill walking.
Trade unionists aren’t always associated with a love of poetry but then Mohammad Taj isn’t your average trade unionist.
Shortly after we interview the first South Asian and Muslim president of the Trades Union Congress–and the first to be a bus driver – both Bob Crow and Tony Benn die, and we go back to him for a comment.
His reply, paying tribute to the two, comes back in verse.
Taj, from Bradford, was elected to the one-year post as president of the TUC in September.
His role includes promoting trade unionism and campaigning on issues that matter to the TUC’s constituent unions, including the one he belongs to, Unite. The verse comes as extra.
As a Punjabi speaker Taj followed his father to Britain from Pakistan in the early 1960s. After learning English and completing his education he briefly worked in the textile industry before becoming a bus driver 40 years ago. It is a job he loves and one he has retained despite being offered much more lucrative posts.
So he has been keen to warn against the scapegoating of immigrants, and accuses all the major parties of being less than honest with the electorate about what he sees as the dangers of restricting migration. Far from being a threat to living standards by depressing wages, as some claim, immigrants actually provide an economic boost to the country.
“The Economist estimates that Britain annually benefits by £7 billion from migration,” says Taj, who is taking a sabbatical from his First Bus Company job to be TUC president. “Our ageing profile means by 2050 there simply won’t be the tax income from the numbers living here to pay pensioners a decent pension. A Harvard University professor has told me that Britain will eventually need to buy in workers if people want to maintain their current living standards.”
Defending the NHS is another of his priorities and he is critical the growing role of the private sector and profit in health services. In the early 1960s his father came to the UK for treatment. He was suffering from TB and couldn’t afford treatment in Kashmir where the family was living at the time. He believes the NHS “saved my father’s life”.
Taj witnessed discrimination and bullying in the largely non-union textile trade and joined the Transport and General Workers Union – now part of Unite – when he started driving for a living. He successfully helped investigate – and end – corrupt practices in which Asian workers workers were forced to pay bribes to managers and union officials to be employed at his workplace.
In 1982 he was elected as the TGWU’s workplace representative at the company and is today the branch secretary for 600-plus bus workers who are members of Unite. He represents members at disciplinary and grievance hearings, including discrimination cases, negotiates with management over pay and is heavily involved in all aspects of safety and welfare at work.
In 1985 he successfully applied for the considerably better paid post of full-time officer with the TGWU. However, when it became apparent that he would be expected to move to London, he decided not take up the position, as his wife Naseem was not keen to uproot their young family.
By this time, Taj was a Labour Party member – but only after his original request to join was declined by a racist official who told him: “Sorry, there are no vacancies. We are full up.” A chance encounter with a sympathetic member helped him sign up two years later. He is still active and describes himself as “old Labour”, with a hankering for the return of policies to restore former nationalised utilities such as the railways, gas, water and electricity into public ownership.
In the late 1980s a number of black trade union activists began to agitate for black representation on the senior bodies of their own unions and the TUC. Self-organised black groups were formed in a number of major unions and at one point Bernie Grant, the radical black MP for Haringey in North London, sought to develop black-only trade unions. Taj was one of those who successfully organised against Grant because “unions are about unity, class not colour”.
Nevertheless, he was delighted when in 1992 the TGWU became the first union to elect a black leader, in this case, Bill Morris, who was keen to improve the presence of minorities in a union representing workers from a diverse range of occupations and backgrounds. The union established a race equality advisory committee and now Taj is the chair of the Unite national Black Asian and ethnic minorities committee. He has been on the TUC’s general council since 2001. He says he cares very passionately about equality and stresses this must extend to “ethnic minorities, women, disabled persons and lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender groups”.
In 1995 the Manningham district of Bradford erupted into rioting over two nights in June. Later the local authority asked Taj to work alongside sociology professor Sheila Allen and John Barratt, a solicitor with experiences of investigations into local authorities, to help enquire into the causes of the disturbances.
Although he played a full part in its research he refused to sign the finished report, as he believed it offered no constructive recommendations on issues such as segregation and policing. He was quoted in newspapers as saying: “I want the police to openly acknowledge there are racists in their ranks and kick them out” and was dismayed to find the police knew so little about the communities they policed that they believed Sikhs worshiped in mosques and adherents of Islam worshipped in a temple.
But he also criticised Muslim communities for the subordinate role forced on women and an attitude that integration would mean a loss of religion and culture. He produced his own 25-page report, A Can Do City, and stressed the need for central government funds for economic regeneration in Bradford.
As he was set to return to work, the local authority approached Taj with a job offer. It wanted him to become the co-ordinator of a new community relations body to be established in Manningham. “I felt this was an attempt to get me to sign the report and I rejected the offer. My criticism was being bought off. In the 1970s I had witnessed many black radicals from inner-city areas who were co-opted by local authorities and who then became of little use to the communities they came from.”
Taj is expecting to attend more than 250 meetings in his year as president, as well as civic functions and probably stints on the picket lines of striking workers. That doesn’t leave much time for his hobby of hill walking with his wife – his favourite walk is around Ingleborough in the Yorkshire Dales – but he is enjoying his new role “meeting so many people and visiting places I did not know”.
He adds: “I have also got much better at public speaking and I hope that I can encourage people to get involved with the trade union movement and help make the world a more equal place.”
But at the end of the year, it will be back to the buses and another role he loves. “I really enjoy meeting the public and have made many good friends. I am avid reader and whenever I am parked up for a break I usually take out a newspaper – my favourites are the Guardian and the Financial Times.
“You’d be amazed at how many times this has sparked off a conversation with passengers. You get to chat with many of them on a regular basis from then on.”
It is though perhaps just as well that he has a day job as he may not have a future as a poet. For his trade union colleague Bob Crow he wrote:
“Wow! what a man that Bob Crow, Respected alike by friend and foe, Mess with him and trains won’t show, Champion lost we will come to know.”
And for Labour politician Tony Benn:
“About gongs and titles he did not care,
Passionate man passion he wanted to share,
Passionate man passion he wanted to share,
Remember, no fuss, just say a quiet prayer.”