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Unison witch-hunt: Shock exposures at Employment Tribunal
Between 15 and 18 December 2009, the case of four Unison branch officers under threat of suspension from office reached its dramatic conclusion at an employment tribunal.
A Unison member
The case concerns a leaflet depicting the proverb 'three wise monkeys' which claimed that the body responsible for organising the 2007 Unison national conference agenda (SOC) was refusing to allow controversial motions for debate. These motions concerned the election of full-time officers, affiliation to the Labour Party, and lay member control over industrial action.
Unison subsequently branded the leaflet 'offensive material' and disciplined the elected branch officers from the leaflet's four sponsoring branches. These are Glenn Kelly, the secretary of Bromley branch, Onay Kasab (Kas), the secretary of Greenwich branch, Brian Debus, chair of Hackney branch and Suzanne Muna of the Tenant Services Authority branch.
Around 40 observers attended the hearing anticipating a slow week, raking over mounting piles of evidence. Instead, a nail-biting drama unfolded as Unison's two key witnesses gave evidence which severely damaged the union leadership's defence.
In court, the four claimants, all members of the Socialist Party, had presented evidence that the disciplinary action and disproportionate sentences (bans between three and five years) resulted from the bureaucracy's hostility toward their Marxist-Trotskyist beliefs. The second week of hearings gave Unison the opportunity to respond to the claims.
Despite previous denials, the London regional secretary now admitted that there had been a discussion at a regional officers' training day concerning the 'problem' of Trotskyists in the region and that it was well known that Glenn Kelly had campaigned against Unison policy and that was why his regional officer was moved out of his branch.
Then Beverley Miller, chair of Unison's Black Members' Committee gave evidence. During the 2007 conference, Beverley had accused the four branches of racism because the chair of SOC was black, suggesting the image was a caricature constituting racist humour more worthy of Bernard Manning - an allegation which shocked all at the conference who heard it, including the four accused.
In court, however, the extent to which Beverley had been manipulated by Unison's bureaucracy was starkly revealed.
One such example was when Bev revealed that the letters of apology written by the four had never been shown to her by the union, despite it having had them for over two years. It was also clear that the union investigators deliberately withheld them from her.
Also, when shown evidence that the disciplinary investigation was already underway before she made her speech attacking the four, she said had she known that she would not have made the speech, however the president had encouraged her to do so.
Having seen the apologies in court and asked: if she had been offered the chance to discuss her concerns with the four branches, would she have been happy with that as a way of resolving it at that stage? - she said she would have been.
In a further dramatic twist, the main investigating officer was caught out trying to cover up hiding the apology letters from Bev Miller. He suggested that he did not have them by the time he interviewed her on 8 November.
Unfortunately for him he had emailed an initial draft of his report referring to the apologies. The officer then had to apologise to the court and said that it had not been his intention to lie or mislead.
The union's senior officials were further exposed as having altered the recommendations of the investigation report to ensure that racism charges were put, despite no initial recommendation to do so.
The outcome of the case is not known yet. However, what has been brought to light is the extent to which Unison has sought to stir up rank and file members against socialists and critics of the bureaucracy, and its willingness to unduly manipulate internal processes in order to do so. It has also exploited genuine concerns over racism in order to pursue its hidden agenda, something that will now be apparent to activists.
Entirely separate from the employment tribunal, Unison has recently completed appeal hearings over the 'guilty' verdict and suspensions imposed on the four. The result of these hearings is expected imminently.
The four will continue to defend themselves through the Defend the Four campaign and through the broader 'Reclaim the Union' campaign which seeks to reverse the erosion of democracy in Unison.
Protests about the suspensions have been pouring in to Unison general secretary Dave Prentis. Copies of some of these will be carried in a future issue of The Socialist.