Onay Kasab addresses 200 trade unionists, community campaigners and service users who marched in Feb 2011 in Greenwich, south London, against the local council's brutal cuts package, photo Lorraine Dardis

Onay Kasab addresses 200 trade unionists, community campaigners and service users who marched in Feb 2011 in Greenwich, south London, against the local council’s brutal cuts package, photo Lorraine Dardis   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Expelled from Unison for effective anti-cuts leadership

Onay Kasab, Greenwich Socialist Party

“The appeals committee unanimously rejected your appeal”. These were the words in the letter sent to me from Unison on 1 September.

The decision finally ended my over 20 years of membership of Unison, 13 years of which were as Greenwich Unison branch secretary.

On 23 August a Unison appeals committee heard my appeal against expulsion from Unison. This followed the decision to ban me from holding office for two years following the now notorious and ridiculous allegations linked to a leaflet criticising the union leadership – I was one of four Socialist Party members witch-hunted after a leaflet calling for resolutions on union democracy to be heard was circulated at the 2007 Unison conference [see Defend the Unison Four!].

An employment tribunal found that the ban was an act of unjustifiable disciplinary action. But shortly after this decision, Unison came forward with new allegations claiming that I had brought the union into disrepute.

They alleged that I have encouraged Unison members to leave the union and join Unite. It is this allegation that has now led to my expulsion.

Some on the left have criticised the way that I have acted following the ban, even claiming that I have put my own personal feelings ahead of the needs of the working class.

Others have claimed that workers who have left Unison – as many have – have made a mistake and that in fact the witch-hunt against the Socialist Party has now ended.

The reality is the complete opposite. In fact the behaviour of the Socialist Party in relation to Greenwich Unison has been totally vindicated.

Greenwich council workers have been quick to point out how correct our actions have been, in view of the fact that the Greenwich Unite branch has now, with a socialist leadership, returned a fighting union branch to Greenwich council.

Onay Kasab addressed a lobby of Unison HQ in 2009 to protest against banning from office of Socialist Party members, photo Alison Hill

Onay Kasab addressed a lobby of Unison HQ in 2009 to protest against banning from office of Socialist Party members, photo Alison Hill

Socialist Party targeted

The Unison witch-hunt that began at the 2007 conference was launched to attack Socialist Party members specifically.

There have of course been other witch-hunts attacking other lefts. But the Unison campaign against the Four was an attempt to silence the Socialist Party in particular.

This was clear when charges were dropped against a fifth Unison member who was not a Socialist Party member.

Later, evidence emerged of a concerted effort by the Unison bureaucracy to target the party.

To now argue that the witch-hunt against the Socialist Party is over, when I have been expelled and when Bromley Unison Socialist Party member Glenn Kelly also faces expulsion is ridiculous.

Following our victory at the employment tribunal, the witch-hunters in the bureaucracy announced that they would fight the decision, appealing all the way to the European court, wasting union members’ money.

While Unison members must show that they have at least a 50% chance of winning a legal case before getting Unison support, the bureaucracy is willing to take its chances with members’ money when it comes to attacking its own activists.

The message is clear from the bureaucracy – they will fight for the right to expel socialists.

Building Unison

I joined Unite once it became clear I was going to be banned from office in Unison. In doing this, I did not end my membership of Unison – I had dual membership, which is not uncommon for trade unionists to have.

Prior to joining Unite, I fought to ensure that members did not leave Unison. More than five separate letters were sent by the Greenwich Unison branch committee that I was secretary of, to over 3,000 home addresses urging people to stay in Unison and fight.

In fact a mass campaign was launched in Greenwich involving large sections of the membership.

The campaign went beyond union stewards and activists, with ordinary members attending lobbies, meetings and rallies as well as writing hundreds of letters of protest, signing petitions and taking part in telephone protests aimed at Unison HQ.

Our campaign in Greenwich gained huge press coverage, most of it supportive. This went alongside the legal campaign.

The Unison bureaucracy decided to ignore this and, on the day that the ban began, raided the branch office, ejecting branch officers, not just me. Even then, we ran a campaign in Greenwich to remove this occupation.

Workers leaving

Once it became clear that the occupiers were in for the long run, Socialist Party members in Greenwich correctly weighed up the situation.

All the time when we were fighting the witch-hunt, council trade union members were preparing to fight cuts.

This was one reason why some of the most active sections, in libraries and grounds maintenance, decided that they were going to leave Unison.

Of course they were disgusted at the witch-hunt. But also they realised very quickly that the point of the witch-hunt and the occupation that followed was to dampen down resistance to the cuts, to get a militant branch to accept compromise.

The Unison regional bureaucracy wanted to help out its friends in Labour-controlled Greenwich council, where the Unison branch, under the leadership of the Socialist Party, was more than a constant thorn in their side.

Other Unison members had started leaving in protest at the witch-hunt. The regional bureaucracy effectively closed down the Unison branch and made clear that those Unison representatives close to the Socialist Party leadership would not be allowed to be active.

I am a socialist and a trade unionist, duty bound to build the trade union movement. If I am not allowed to do it in Unison, I will do it elsewhere.

Many are leaving Unison and joining Unite in Greenwich. Following my election to the position of Unite branch secretary even more staff have joined.

But more importantly, we have done what Greenwich Unison, under the control of regional officers, is refusing to do.

Campaigns have been launched against cuts and privatisation. Members have been protected when being reorganised.

To put this quite starkly, had the library stewards not joined Unite when they did, there could have been job losses.

It is important to note that Unison members were telling stewards: We are leaving whether or not you agree.

This could have led to the loss of the best union-organised areas. Instead, the Socialist Party in Greenwich has helped to ensure that workers have regrouped and are now organised again in a trade union, ready to fight the cuts.

In stark contrast, there is no campaign to win Greenwich Unison back for its members. Instead an accommodation has been reached with the few remaining stewards who now work with the witch-hunting bureaucracy in running the branch.

This is now a branch with no meetings for stewards or members, no publications, it has top-down control, an office still occupied by regional officials and no campaigning. Membership is draining away.

Those who say that we should not have joined Unite, rather like those who argue that we should join the Labour Party and change it, have one fatal flaw – there is no plan, no strategy for how the Greenwich Unison branch can be turned quickly into one that can defend council workers against the cuts.

Instead we were expected to simply stay in the Unison branch alone, keep our heads down and wait for the day when all would be well again.

This is exactly why some have reached an accommodation with the bureaucracy and are now working with them.

Farcical ‘trial’

The evidence against me consisted of two Unite application forms from ex-Unison members. Nobody stated that they had been poached. Instead the appeal panel was told that they must have been.

Unison put forward one witness who lied by claiming that I called him and told him to join Unite, then sent him forms.

In fact he called me and asked for the forms, saying that Unison was ‘not up to much’. He claimed that I was “out of order” because I called stewards “comrade”.

When I cross examined the investigating officer and caught him out on several occasions, he begged for mercy, saying that while I was an experienced trade unionist, his experience as a TUC academy trainee was limited.

The standard of evidence was not even up to the standard that we expect from our employers. This expulsion decision was pre-ordained and is a clear statement that the witch-hunt continues.

Fighting the cuts

In Greenwich we have taken the absolutely correct decision. We have regrouped the organised workers in Greenwich and we are providing a campaigning alternative to a branch run by bureaucrats.

Far from putting personal feelings first, we have put the workers first by prioritising the fight against cuts, which the Unison bureaucracy was preventing us from doing.

This is not saying that Unison members elsewhere should join other unions. This was a local decision to allow us to continue to fight the council’s vicious austerity programme.

Unison nationally must of course be won for its members and the Socialist Party will be at the forefront of working for that.

But where we are prevented from even being active, we reserve the right to take measures locally to ensure that we are able to play a role as trade unionists and socialists.

Greenwich should serve as a warning to the Unison bureaucracy. We will not go away and inside or outside of Unison we will continue to be a thorn in their side.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 16 September 2011 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.